Content warning: suicide. In the very first episode of Hulu's The Girl From Plainville, there is a scene that turns the blood cold. A seemingly stricken teenage girl practises what, to all outward appearances, sounds like a funeral speech in her bedroom mirror, her face contorted with tears: “I loved him and he loved me and he loved all of you guys”. Eerily enough, when she begins to fumble, her exact words in a different voice can be heard playing in the background. She turns around to her laptop, her face slipping back to stone-cold composure as she restarts the video. It transpires it’s not a funeral speech after all. Word for word, complete with identical body language, she is imitating the palpable real life grief and pain of actress Lea Michele in the tribute episode in Glee where the actress commemorated the actual death of her co-star and boyfriend Cory Monteith, who died back in 2013 from an accidental overdose. Teenage girls emulating scenes from popular media is nothing new, rather, what is particularly unnerving, is that it feels like we are watching someone incapable of experiencing grief cosplaying someone who is devastated by it.
Now streaming in the UK on Starzplay, the eight-part mini-series is a dramatisation of the infamous real life “texting suicide case” – whereby Massachusetts teenager Michelle Carter (played to perfection by Elle Fanning) over the course of their years-long relationship and via thousands of text messages and phone calls, pressured her hesitant boyfriend Conrad Roy III to kill himself. Roy (nicknamed Coco) suffered from clinical depression and suicidal ideation, but at one point, was unsure about his decision and tried to pull out – this is when Carter’s texts get more coercive. In fact, it is revealed they speak on the phone for 40 minutes before his suicide. She was the last person to talk to him. Coco was 18 at the time of his death in 2014 – Carter was 17 – and years later she was convicted in a precedent-setting case of involuntary slaughter.
Early on, The Girl From Plainville goes ham on its condemnation for Carter. This monstrous public perception of her is understandable, especially when you see glimpses of text messages that not only seem to romanticise his imminent death (“I’d love to be your Juliet”), but also cover her tracks (“did you delete the messages?”), and instigate irreversible action in a particularly vulnerable individual (“no more thinking, you just need to do it”). We meet Coco’s grief-stricken mother Lynn, played by the brilliant Chloë Sevigny, suspicious of the sudden introduction of this hysterically sobbing teenage girl into her life, despite never having heard of her before.
But parallel to the facts, which we already have, the series also tries to understand through various time-hopping sequences the complex interiority of a clearly troubled teenage girl and what might have led her to do this. Was she a narcissistic psychopath with an inflated ego? A lonely, attention-seeking individual? Desperate romantic? Delusional ‘main character’ teen? We catch glimpses of all four.
It’s definitely worth mentioning that there is more than one Glee montage in the series. The show makes great efforts to emphasise Carter’s obsession with popular culture romances where ‘star-crossed lovers’ are torn apart by tragic circumstances, such as Romeo & Juliet and YA material like The Fault In Our Stars (another book/film that focuses on a gone-too-soon romantic interest). Her obsession with Glee's main character of Rachel Berry certainly calls to mind the kind of fervent parasocial relationships with celebrities exacerbated by the widespread access of social media. Technology – in particular mobile phones – are a haunting spectre in the film, a vessel through which the unimaginable acts humans are capable of committing against each other are executed.
Any brief moments of sympathy felt towards Carter – for example when she is repeatedly shunned by friends – are eradicated when we see the extent of which she exploits Coco as currency for attention and purpose in the aftermath of his death. She ingratiates herself boldly with his family; audaciously tells people about the “hard time [she’s] going through” in front of his broken mother Lynn at the funeral; even hijacks a fundraiser for mental health to be held by his best friend as her own idea, manipulatively turning on the tears when he questions why it is situated in Plainville, her town, rather than Coco’s hometown. One can’t help but feel that she certainly orchestrated her place centre stage in this tragic story for the notoriety and sympathy.
One bizarre scene sees Carter flip with rage at hearing that Coco’s family scattered his ashes on the beach without her. “They left me out; I was the only one who mattered to him!” she sulks to her father. Her infuriated sense of entitlement makes you wonder whether she genuinely believes that his family purposely left her out as punishment and how she can't register that they simply didn't know they were that close. Could someone be this brazenly narcissistic, or – in line with her obsession with romance and celebrity – just be an individual suffering from a distorted sense of reality?
Laudable is the way the series breathes life into Coco outside of the headlines and his position as a victim of a crime. We see that he was a thinker, smart and brilliant, but vulnerable and tortured by demons. The Girl From Plainville is no doubt a fascinating character study of both teens, as well as a dissection of mental health, the way technology encroaches on our interpersonal relationships, and the extraordinarily multifaceted levels of harm that one person can inflict on another.
The Girl From Plainville is available to watch on Starzplay