Elle Fanning Reveals There’s More To ‘The Girl From Plainville’ (TV Review)

This week, Hulu releases the first three episodes of the limited series The Girl From Plainville, based on the real-life “suicide texting case.” At the center was high schooler Michelle Carter who was found guilty of manslaughter in 2017. Elle Fanning stars as the troubled teen who may or may not have convinced 18-year-old Conrad “Coco” Roy (Colton Ryan) to take his own life in 2014 via texts. Looking back, it’s easy to see why social media blew up with tweets, podcasts, and even an HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter. It was inevitable a limited dramatic series would happen, and one assumes the new Hulu series delivers more than the made-for-TV movie, starring Bella Thorne, did in 2018. The Girl From Plainville aims to shed light on a young woman who appeared so opaque in public.

Questions remain: who exactly is Michelle Carter? Why would she aid a troubled young man to take his own life? Amongst the current wave of tech tales like Hulu’s own The Dropout, Apple’s WeCrashed, and Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber, this limited series is tech-adjacent but focused on the struggles of ordinary people. In this regard, Plainville is closer in spirit to Hulu’s superb series from 2021, Dopesick.

(Note: Hulu sent the entire eight episodes for review. The following will be spoiler-free, aside from some court details regarding the real Michelle Carter.)

The eight-episode series switches between the POV of Michelle and Coco as well as rushing back and forth in the timeline of events. The kinds of characters we’ve seen in countless true crime sagas are present: the family of both teens, the detectives who discovered the scathing text exchanges, and the legal teams who built their cases. In many ways, showrunner Liz Hannah (executive producer on The Dropout) sticks to a well-trodden path that’s been used many times for “based on a true story” material. Maybe a bit too much.

By far the best reason to watch The Girl From Plainville is to witness Fanning’s compelling portrayal of Michelle Carter. The scripts allow The Great actress to dive into a kind of mental illness that’s often absent in mainstream shows or even films. Yes, the texts she sent to her alleged boyfriend are pretty damning evidence that she urged him to kill himself but Fanning’s portrayal walks a tightrope between naive teen and someone on her own brink of sanity. People who “snap” are typically on point of no return track in narratives, but the reality is most who struggle with mental health vacillate back and forth for years.

Fanning has played super likable (Maleficent, The Great) and not so much (The Neon Demon, Teen Dream), yet Michelle is neither. As a performer, Elle’s enthusiasm for her character’s sensibilities makes for great choices with dialogue and non-verbal cues. Fanning ups her internal game by inferring more without the typical proclamations that explicitly clobbers viewers over the head on how to feel. It’s a welcome change for a true crime tale.

To be clear: Fanning and the writers don’t aim to make Michelle likeable like Netflix’s tone-deaf series Inventing Anna attempted (and failed) with convicted felon Anna Sorokin. The aim is merely about illuminating who she was as a person at the time of the incidents. Viewers can decide for themselves if they felt she deserved her sentencing.

Here’s the Wikipedia summary for those who don’t know: “Michelle Carter was sentenced to 15 months and five years probation in 2017. She pleaded not guilty and did not testify in her own defense.” Aya Cash plays the main prosecutor on the case. Like the rest of the supporting cast she’s more a delivery system of info dumps than an actual character.

The show utilizes the teen vibe in more ways that just Fanning’s performance. Several episodes have pop songs names with two being Taylor Swift tracks: Mirrorball, Blank Space(s). In a clever move, many of the text moments are staged as real-life encounters between Michelle and Coco. It’s a conceit that 100% works. Michelle’s obsession with Glee is also a factor, including a key dance sequence. Sometimes, we’re in Michelle’s head so much we’re treated to fictional accounts of how things played out (Similar to how Ed Wood imagined his big opening night featuring a packed house in Tim Burton’s film when, in reality, no one likely attended).

As Coco, Ryan does an admirable job as the late teen who took his own life, even if his portions of the series are weaker than Fanning’s. Credit to the writers and Ryan’s performance, Coco is a complicated young man with just as many unlikeable aspects as sympathetic. Having Chloe Sevigny play his mom is a smart casting choice, but she isn’t used as much as I would have liked. Sadly, Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Coco’s abusive dad, feels underwritten.

Directors like Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) and Pippa Bianco (Euphoria) keep the production grounded. I wouldn’t say the series is naturalistic (the time shifts can be unnecessarily confusing), but there’s definitely an emphasis on smaller relatable moments. An early scene with Michelle coordinating a baseball game to raise money for suicide effectively highlights how her good intentions are misguided and ultimately, self-serving. Likewise, a later scenes where Coco tries to reconcile his future post-graduation shows how unremarkable and scary his future might be.

The Girl From Plainville is a well-executed eight-episode limited series that knows we’ve seen dramatizations of true crime plenty. Its ace is Fanning’s searing performance: a high point for a performer who has many significant roles already. A better balance between Michelle and Coco as individuals would have made the series stronger, but with so many other pluses, this is an easy recommendation.

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