The Girl from Plainville review: Elle Fanning shines in a harrowing true crime drama that should come with a trillion trigger warnings

A welcome change of pace from the sort of sordid true crime storytelling that Netflix quietly slips into the bloodstreams of hangry audiences on a weekly basis, The Girl from Plainville takes a particularly harrowing real-life incident and suppresses (nearly) every instinct to circle its most scandalous bits. Instead—and this is admirably bold of creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus—the show sweeps aside every last speck of sleaze and focusses on the tragic love story at the series’ core.

That being said, this is a genuinely distressing examination of mental health, and I would strongly recommend proceeding with caution. Consider this an emphatic trigger warning.

And now, a bit of a recap. In 2014, the Massachusetts teen Conrad Roy III—known as Coco to his friends and family—was found in his car, having apparently died of monoxide poisoning. His death was ruled a suicide—Coco had a history of mental illness, and had tried to take his life before—but further investigation revealed that in the months leading up to his death, he’d been texting furiously with a girl who lived an hour away. Even though they’d met in person only a handful of times, their text exchanges suggested that they were deeply in love. But the messages also revealed another sinister detail, that the girl, a blonde high-schooler named Michelle Carter, had seemingly encouraged Coco to take his own life, even going as far as to egg him on in his final moments, just when he was showing signs of hesitation.

The case was covered widely in the media, and in 2019 inspired a two-part HBO documentary titled I Love You, Now Die. This is the first narrative adaptation of the incident, which in many ways serves as a representation of our cultural decay. A cautionary tale about the fallout of unchecked mental illness, and a warm portrayal of young love, The Girl from Plainville sets itself apart from the crowd with some patiently developed character work, and a conscious effort to underplay the most shocking aspects of the story.

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For instance, rarely has a depressed person been portrayed with such deep empathy. Coco’s illness was just one aspect of his personality, and yes, it slowly overtook everything else, but he was more than his depression. He had his days, chilling with his granddad, bonding with the guys at his father’s tug-boat business, falling in love. During his last hours on Earth, he tasted guacamole for the first time on a beach outing with his mother, and had the awareness to understand why this was so funny to her.

Michelle, in the show, always knew about his condition, but the first time she’s struck by the gravity of his depression is when he tells her, with remarkable clarity, that he feels constantly regretful about the past and pessimistic about the future. He will never be able to lead a regular life, have a wife and kids, or go on vacations. And somewhere along the way, he appears to have made his peace with this. Michelle is always there, hanging onto his every word.

But after a handful of early episodes in which she’s projected as a proper psychopath, The Girl from Plainville abruptly changes its mind about her and seems to suggest that she, too, was struggling. Which makes sense; why would anybody encourage the person that they love to kill themselves? But it doesn’t explain why the show hadn’t always taken this creative route with her. Having scrutinised all eight episodes, this remains my biggest complaint.

The same narrative tricks that The Girl from Plainville uses to highlight the love story angle in later episodes were used to point fingers at Michelle earlier. Her love for Glee, for instance, and her memorisation of lines from the show to repeat in public is designed to make us vilify her. Here’s a person who was always off, the show seems to be saying, while also alerting us to her attention-seeking tendencies. And then, some episodes later, it unleashes a musical sequence to magnify the intensity of Michelle’s grieving process.

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The show is otherwise very restrained, though. Having realised that we’ve probably explored every option as far as the cinematic representation of texting is concerned, it comes up with the clever idea of putting Michelle and Coco next to each other in the same physical space when they’re chatting online. It’s an extension of the idea that Hideo Nakata had for his 2010 thriller Chatroom, about strangers who meet online and encourage each other’s bad behaviour in a virtual space, represented on screen physically.

Two of the show’s eight episodes have been directed by Lisa Cholodenko, who also serves as an executive producer, as she did on the superior Netflix miniseries Unbelievable. She knows her way around this material better than most. Cholodenko and the series’ other directors get some excellent performances out of not just leads Elle Fanning, who is so fragile as Michelle, but also Colton Ryan, who plays a big role in making Coco a fully fleshed-out person, and Chloë Sevigny, who plays his hard-as-nails mother Lynn.

There is a built-in exploitative element to every true crime story, and regardless of how smartly The Girl from Plainville sidesteps most problem-areas, it will never be able to fully avoid these complaints. A young man died, and now, a Disney-owned corporation is profiting off his death—never forget this. The Girl from Plainville is available to stream in India on Lionsgate Play.

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