27 November 2022

Doomed orbit central to manslaughter story

Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter. Picture: Stan

By Tim Kroenert 

13 April 2022

Warning: This review contains discussion of mental ill health and suicide. 

There’s a certain mid-tier of made-for-streaming drama that’s best described as “sub-premium”. Think shows like Dr Death, Unorthodox and even the very good Maid. Such series are competently executed, yet are visually and tonally innocuous. They siphon narrative intrigue from salacious true-life sources, using top-shelf performances and middle-shelf scripts. They employ disjointed chronologies, weaving back and forth in time to gather enough plot for an eight-episode run. Compelling in the moment, they epitomise that proverbial beast, content: binge now, forget later. 

The Girl From Plainville falls neatly into that category – even if, like Maid, it is one of the better examples. It takes as its inspiration the 2014 case of then 17-year-old Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), who was convicted of manslaughter for persuading 18-year-old Conrad Roy (Colton Ryan) to take his own life. The series opens with this incident and its immediate aftermath, then loops backwards through preceding years to explore the characters’ history, both individually and with each other. It pushes forward in the “present day”, to portray how Michelle and others, including Conrad’s family, react to the gradual revelations of her role in his death. 

Among a uniformly solid cast, Fanning is superb. She succeeds admirably at making Michelle both monstrous and sympathetic. The second episode shows Michelle, still yet to be exposed, hosting a baseball fundraiser in Conrad’s honour. Conrad’s bereaved best friend Rob (Jeff Wahlberg) and mother Lynn (Chloë Sevigny) are present. Yet Michelle’s determination to be the centre of attention is tragic, as well as horrifying. Beneath the facade of near conscience-less bravado we see signs of a hurt and vulnerable young woman who is desperate for affection. In private moments we, the audience, occasionally see the facade shatter entirely, before being hastily glued back together. 

The series parallels Michelle and Conrad’s experiences, probing each. Both have struggled to meet the social expectations of their peers. Both have experienced slights against their wellbeing by adults who should know better. Michelle’s obsession with the TV show Glee sees her explicitly, wishfully play-act moments from that musical soap. Conrad play-acts a kind of aggressive masculinity to the sounds of hip-hop. Neither is mentally well – both have been prescribed medication, and Conrad has attempted suicide before. Caught in each other’s orbit, both seem doomed. 

At the time of writing only the first four of eight episodes are available to view. Yet this, combined with the historical record, is more than enough to get a sense of where things are going. By the midway point of the series, we’ve been introduced to the law-and-order professionals who will bring about Michelle’s downfall. There’s not much guesswork involved in knowing how it will end. It’s an engrossing diversion though – ably filling the time it takes to choose the next parcel of compelling content the platforms of the moment offer up. 

Streaming on Stan. 

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