By: Kayla Caldwell
True crime cases being turned into scripted series is nothing new. We’ve had The Act, Joe vs. Carole, The Murders at White House Farm, and there's HBO’s upcoming The Staircase. For a number of reasons - including Elle Fanning’s uncanny portrayal of Michelle Carter, the unflinching look at anxiety and depression, and the musical sequences that establish Michelle’s lack of touch with reality - THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE just hit different.
When I saw the latest Conjuring flick, I was bummed they didn’t show more of the actual court case. However, with THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE, while those certainly bring drama, you could have probably done without most of them (though admittedly, that would be sad, because Aya Cash, as always, is amazing). Created by Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE works best when it is depicting the teens’ struggle with mental illness.
Conrad Roy III (Coco, played by Colton Ryan) is an 18-year-old with severe anxiety and depression. He has attempted suicide once before, though he ended up calling a friend for help. Through webcam-style videos, we hear Coco’s struggle with intrusive thoughts, and - as someone who also suffers from them - it really captures the frustration that comes with not understanding why your own brain isn’t behaving the way you want it to.
The videos are heartbreaking, and paired with Chloe Sevigny’s authentic and devastating performance as Coco’s mother, Lynn Roy, you really see the havoc mental illness can wreak. Ryan’s Coco is gut-wrenching to watch, and really embodies the hopelessness that can accompany depression. Coco, a sensitive kid, also has to deal with a father (Norbert Leo Butz) and grandfather (Peter Gerety) who are the picture of toxic masculinity (at least as they are portrayed on this show). His grandfather won’t even hear anyone in the family talk about mental illness, therapy, or suicide, and looks down on his son for wanting to participate in a suicide awareness fundraiser. The way he talks to Lynn is also very telling of how he feels about women. These are the kind of men who believe anger is the only acceptable emotion.
And then Coco meets Michelle, while on vacation in Florida, and it seems like an amazing coincidence. They only live about 30 miles apart in Massachusetts, so they exchange numbers, and spend the rest of vacation hanging out. That's when their love story turns into more of a horror movie (specifically 2010's Chatroom).
Michelle Carter (Fanning) has her own struggles, including body dysmorphia. We often see her stress eating, vomiting, and working out obsessively. She finds comfort escaping into the fantasy world of Glee. She watches it constantly, and even quotes Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) verbatim, to family and friends, imagining Coco as Rachel’s boyfriend, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith). There are a few spontaneous musical numbers that could have been superfluous and ridiculous, but honestly, for me, really emphasized Michelle’s detachment from reality. When everyone finds out about the case, and Michelle feels like a pariah, that is reflected in her day dreams, which turn into nightmares. At her sister’s school concert, Michelle imagines the choir - including her sister - are singing “Teenage Dirtbag” just to humiliate her.
While Michelle clearly has anxiety and self-worth issues, there’s still a level of narcissism there, to believe that her sister’s recital would be about embarrassing her. She also centers herself in the tragedy of Coco’s suicide, acting like a widow rather than a teenaged long-distance girlfriend. When Coco’s best friend Rob (Jeff Wahlberg) wants to plan a fundraiser for mental health awareness to honor Coco, Michelle not only gets involved, but takes over. She plans the fundraiser in her city, rather than where Coco grew up, and where all of his friends and family live. At the funeral, of all places, a teary-eyed Michelle sidles up to Coco's mom, and tells him, with a quivering lip, “I know I’m only 17, but I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.”
She really lays it on thick in front of her friends and Coco’s family, despite the fact that her family didn’t even know she was dating someone. Michelle doesn’t know this boy well enough to call him Coco, despite that clearly being the name that he goes by, let alone well enough to be putting on the performance that she is. Her level of delusion is especially apparent when she throws a fit because she wasn't invited to spread Coco's ashes, which one would think would be a private, family affair.
As a true crime fan, I’m familiar with the case, and have seen the HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter. The real question at the heart of this case is: Why? If she's so in love with him, why would she encourage him to complete suicide? The court case, as portrayed on the show, doesn’t put that much emphasis on her motive. However, THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE, as a series, highlights the nuances of mental illness, and how it can affect your life. The show doesn't provide Michelle with an excuse, but rather the context to understand how things went so far.
Fanning’s Michelle is awkward and lacks self-confidence, viewing even the smallest slights as grounds for a mental breakdown. She’s a teenager, so emotions are heightened to begin with, but when you add in the fact that Michelle is the odd man out in her friend group, then her anxious attachment style makes sense. It also feels somewhat reminiscent of the series The Act (also on Hulu), with Michelle either pushing Coco to hurt himself or lying to her friends about him being missing, as a means of making people pay attention to her. It’s very "factitious disorder imposed on another" (FDIA, formerly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy). Michelle noticed that when she talked about Coco's issues, her friends felt sorry for her, and actually gave her attention. Like Rob says, “People will do anything for a like.”
At eight episodes, the show probably could have been a bit shorter, but the performances in THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE really kept pulling me back for more. It’s one of the better depictions of mental illness I’ve seen lately, and unlike 13 Reasons Why, they didn’t actually show Coco dying, and certainly did not glamorize it. Fanning not only looks alarmingly like Michelle, but also really embodies the absolute mania that is being a teenaged girl.
The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter is a truly complicated and upsetting case, and THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE really captures those nuances and difficult emotions. The show covers a wealth of upsetting topics, so it will be triggering to some. Others might find it cathartic, and perhaps validating, to see such private struggles depicted in such a relatable way for all to see.
THE GIRL FROM PLAINVILLE premieres with three episodes from the limited series on March 29, 2022.