The Girl from Plainville review – Elle Fanning doesn’t put a foot wrong in this questionable true-crime drama

The star of The Great is brilliant as the girl at the heart of a real-life suicide case – despite a shallow script and ethical concerns

The extraordinary story of the Massachusetts teenagers Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy III has already been told at least three times. Once in the news reports and lurid headlines that accompanied Carter’s arrest, trial and conviction for manslaughter, then – as is legally required in the US – a Lifetime movie and a meticulous, sober, brilliant two-part documentary by Erin Lee Carr called I Love You, Now Die.

That film laid out the case against Carter as the prosecution (and headlines) had written it. Carter had, over the course of thousands of text messages with her boyfriend, Roy – who was already prone to depression and suicidal ideation – persuaded him to kill himself. Halfway through that terrible event, he got scared and abandoned the attempt. She convinced him to resume it. It was, clearly, the act of a narcissist, a psychopath, a monster.

I Love You, Now Die then pulled back, canted the angle and looked at the rest of the story, painting a complicated, nuanced portrait of Carter and contextualising her relationship with Roy so that the simple “black widow” narrative beloved by the media became the tale of how a chronically lonely, mentally fragile girl who had been on antidepressants from a young age became involved with an equally fragile boy who had already attempted suicide more than once. She became increasingly desperate to stay important to him in any way she could. In the end, as one psychologist put it, she thought she was helping him.

The film didn’t have all the answers, but raised the right questions. It asked how ready we are to admit the endless convolutions of the human mind and how far they can be understood by outsiders . It queried the prejudices embedded in our institutions and the inadequacy of our laws. It pondered our collective ability to deal with the new and awful things technology can enable people to do to each other.

Members of the Roy family, including Lynn (Chloë Sevigny, far right), standing in the sea
‘Exceptional’… Lynn (Chloë Sevigny, far right) with other members of the Roy family. Photograph: Steve Dietl/Hulu

Now, there is a fourth retelling: The Girl From Plainville (Starzplay), an eight-part drama starring Elle Fanning as Carter and Colton Ryan as Roy. Alas, it is a much lesser affair, which collapses much of what the documentary covered into an unsubtle – if sympathetic – view of Carter as a drama queen who got carried away with herself. The outcome is painted as a sorry example of where toxic relationships can end up.

The performances are great. Fanning walks a series of fine lines – between normal adolescent intensity and delusion, between youthful egocentricity and narcissism, between love and need – with aplomb. Her Carter is just slightly, exquisitely wrong at every turn – too friendly, too close, too keen, too much. Ryan is deeply moving as a boy who cannot find a way out of the mental straitjacket his family dynamic and brain chemistry have put him into. Chloë Sevigny is exceptional as his grief-stricken mother, Lynn.

Perhaps the enterprise was doomed from the off by the essential interiority of the case. While the documentary was able to adduce outside testimony from psychologists and people who had read through the many boxes of printed-out texts between the pair and seen how they had evolved over years, the drama is hampered by the need to unfold in “real” time and only through the eyes of the people who were there.

A more avoidable problem is that the script – while better than that of a Lifetime movie, for sure – rarely goes below the surface. This story encompasses so much about modern mores, such as how we construct identities and the unique pressures on teens. But it also features timeless concerns, including the innocence of youth, its insecurities and the traps that sets. It needed a multilayered, evocative script that could give us more than screaming rows with parents, hard-nosed exchanges between ambitious lawyers set on creating a landmark case, and eating disorders reduced to secret chocolate-cake binges.

When you consider that this story happened to real young people (and will doubtless put the spotlight back on Carter, who was released from prison two years ago and has not spoken about the case since 2015, including at her trial), it doesn’t feel as though there is enough depth, insight or value added here to justify the endeavour.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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