There’s a moment in “The Girl from Plainville” where Elle Fanning’s Michelle Carter has a “Glee”-esque song and dance routine with boyfriend Conrad “Coco” Roy (Colton Ryan). As the two perform “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the street of her suburban home, it captures everything that makes the series both engaging and frustrating.
It’s a compelling viewpoint into how Carter saw her relationship with Roy — a young man she would encourage to kill himself in the summer of 2014 — but also is one of the few surrealist moments that the series doesn’t have nearly enough of.
Liz Hannah (executive producer on “The Dropout” and Patrick MacManus’ (executive producer on “Dr. Death”) limited series follows Carter and Roy, from their first meeting on a Florida tennis court to the moment of Roy’s eventual suicide and Carter’s trial for it. Many might already know the story from the 2019 documentary, “I Love You, Now Die” or several prominent podcasts that have discussed the events of the crime.
And like Hulu’s previous true-crime limited series like “The Act” and “The Dropout,” “The Girl from Plainville” is a fairly straightforward presentation of the facts, with a dash of dreaminess to evoke Carter’s teenage girl state of mind. It is the latter that is interesting because it causes the scripts and audiences to have an opinion of the type of person Carter and Roy were, or might have been had things gone differently.
Fanning and Ryan have this entire series placed on their shoulders and it is great to watch them, either playing opposite each other and separately. Fanning’s Carter may be beautiful, but she possesses a bevy of insecurities that cause her to be, as some would say, a little much. She struggles to make friends, gravitating to two girls at her school who find her constant texting and attempts to make herself important annoying. The one person Carter believes does understand her is Susie (Pearl Amanda Dickson), who spends time watching “Glee” with the girl only to find Carter’s flirtations unwanted.
One the one hand, it’s impossible not to feel bad for Carter as Fanning portrays her. She’s a teenage girl desperate to belong and figure out who she is. Is she gay or straight? A rebel or a conformist? Is there the ability to find shades in between? But as with most Hulu dramas of this ilk the narrative starts by positioning Carter as more of an opportunist and then opening it up to questions of sympathy. It’s hard to start out with Carter standing in front of a mirror reciting Rachel Berry’s (Lea Michele) eulogy of Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) from “Glee” as it plays in the background in the first episode only to transition by the end to a young woman who maybe has some remorse for the life she maybe, kinda wanted to end.
But Fanning is able to convey all these different faces of Michelle Carter — the opportunist, the manipulator, the scared little girl — with such aplomb. Even when she’s left to wear Carter’s unfortunate darkened eyebrows and stiff hair, there’s a vulnerability underneath her that, again, might not have been Carter’s but works within the series. It’s Colton Ryan, though, who balances out Fanning’s performance. For all the ways Carter is presented as too clingy and needy, Ryan’s Coco Roy makes her human as he requires her strength and validation to make him feel whole.
Michelle sees Coco as the Finn to her Rachel and the twisted power dynamics of that relationship are in flux throughout. The actual couple barely saw each other over the length of their relationship, which was conducted primarily via text. To give the two more on-screen interaction those text exchanges take place in each other’s heads, with the two appearing to share the same location though they’re speaking in messages. It creates a necessary layer of intimacy and, as the two get closer to the finale, showcases how their relationship became more manipulative. Ryan, to his credit, turns Conrad Roy III into such a tragic figure, a sad boy who wants desperately to be happy but is committed to the belief that he never will be. The finale is particularly heartbreaking, reliant on Ryan’s expressions to showcase his conflicted feelings.
The rest of the supporting cast is good, particularly Chloe Sevigny as Coco’s mother, Lynn, and Aya Cash as prosecutor Katie Rayburn, but because courtroom events like these are so often a way into flashbacks there isn’t much grist to their performances. Sevigny’s Lynn is left to struggle with everything going on. Cash acts as audience surrogate, shouting out theories about Carter’s decision-making. The show is far more interesting when it’s presenting a possible scenario for how Carter and Roy interacted with each other, with the adults simply being the noise that they try to drown out.
“The Girl from Plainville” is another standard Hulu true crime series. When it has the opportunity to weave a narrative, away from the confines of a courtroom, it’s impossible to look away. It’s dreamy, disturbing, and impeccably acted by Fanning and Ryan. But it too often falls into the Hulu trap of simply reenacting, presenting the facts and little more.
“The Girl from Plainville” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Hulu will release the first three episodes Tuesday, March 29. New episodes will be released weekly.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.