One of Rotten Tomatoes’ most anticipated shows of 2022, The Girl From Plainville, is now available to binge on Showmax. Elle Fanning (The Great, Maleficent) executive produces and stars as Michelle Carter, the teenager at the centre of the unprecedented “texting suicide case” that arose from the death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, in 2014.
The widely publicised case saw Carter charged with involuntary manslaughter for encouraging Conrad to commit suicide, mostly through phone calls and hundreds of text messages.
Colton Ryan (Little Voice) and Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, We Are Who We Are) co-star as Conrad and his mother, Lynn Roy.
Portraying the two very human, very damaged teenagers with sensitivity was a crucial consideration for both the show’s cast. “This was a very ripped-from-the-headlines case,” Elle says on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But, “the media really painted a very one-dimensional [picture] of this story: Michelle was kind of this black widow manipulator, and Conrad was her victim – and he very much was a victim in this situation, but also, he was painted very one-dimensionally. We didn’t get to know about the young man that he was.”
For Elle, the role came with a great deal of responsibility. “I had to really think about the story that we were telling,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “It ultimately ends in such a tragedy, and these [families] are still alive. We have to be sensitive to them. So it had to be told in the right way that could actually be helpful, and possibly help someone out there who’s suffering.”
Created by Critics Choice nominee Liz Hannah (The Dropout, Mindhunter) and Patrick Macmanus (Dr Death), The Girl From Plainville has a 94% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hollywood Reporter calls it, “A compassionate and devastating portrait of two teens in trouble.” Time says, “The Girl From Plainville rises to the significant challenge of offering novel insight into the psyche of a young woman whose widely discussed actions seemed not just indefensible, but also inexplicable to the public.” And LA Times hails it as “thoughtful and intelligent,” praising its tone as “neither sensationalistic nor judgmental.”
The actors were conscious of the need to monitor their own judgement about the characters they would be playing. On Good Morning America, Elle noted that although her role is based closely on a real, living person, “I am playing a character. And you can’t judge a character that you play. You don’t have to agree with the decisions that they made or necessarily like them but I think I have to come at it from an understanding.”
Both Elle and Colton belong to the same generation as Michelle and Conrad, and have grown up in the digital world. “This is something that we’re all trying to navigate, this false sense of reality that we face in the technological age of texting and social media and that instant gratification that you feel when you get a text, and how easy it is to say things online and do not see the consequences of the hurt that your words can cause,” Elle said in an interview with Collider.
In the real world, Michelle and Conrad only actually met face to face a handful of times. The bond between them – powerful enough to shape the outcome of both their lives – was built mainly on text messages.
Elle says the blurring of fantasy and reality, and the false sense of intimacy that texting can create were built into the way the story is told. In the hands of directors like Oscar nominee Lisa Cholodenko (Unbelievable, The Kids Are All Right), the show reimagines the pair’s text exchanges as if they were spoken face to face in intimate moments, and even segues into fantastical musical numbers – Michelle was a huge fan of the series Glee – to help paint the emotional and psychological landscape of their relationship.
“We had access to all the text messages, so reading those was very haunting and very difficult,” Elle told Collider. “You could see that these two people were in a dark place and they were both reaching out to one another, but reaching out to the wrong people. You just wish that they had never met. They didn’t bring out the best sides of each other, unfortunately. So yeah, Colton and I talked about it a bit. We both are the same age and we have phones, ourselves, so we can understand how you can get wrapped up in that alternate universe. You can create whatever you want on your phone.”
In an interview with Extra TV, Colton said, “This still happens under all of our watch. Many young people are looking for themselves, and I think that [the show is] asking the question, ‘Are they looking for it in the wrong place? Are we all looking for it in the wrong place, by valuing ourselves more online?’”
Elle hopes The Girl from Plainville will help to destigmatise mental health and get people talking about it. And, as LA Times put it, “Plainville may get you thinking more generally about responsibility – of media that sells kids death-wrapped images of love, of how ready we are to believe we know what we only think we know. It may at least remind you that, in an age fueled by reductive statements about everything under the sun, nothing human is as simple as it seems.”