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This Tuesday, the Hulu streaming series “The Girl From Plainville” will introduce a worldwide audience to one of the most infamous court cases in recent Massachusetts history.
The Plainville girl referenced in the title is Michelle Carter, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter after prosecutors said that text messages Carter sent as a 17-year-old to her friend Conrad Roy III, 18, encouraged him to take his own life in 2014.
The “texting suicide” case attracted significant media attention, and has already been the subject of a 2018 Lifetime movie, an episode of “Dateline,” and a two-part HBO documentary. So why does the world need a show like “The Girl From Plainville”?
Elle Fanning, who plays Carter in the series, told “Good Morning America” that “The Girl From Plainville” gives viewers a chance to gain a deeper understanding of Michelle, Conrad, and everyone involved in the case.
“I think for us, it was looking at the case in a different light, in more of an unbiased way,” Fanning said. “I think the media definitely showed a very one-dimensional view of this case on both sides. I think they portrayed Michelle as this ‘black widow’ manipulator, and Conrad as the victim. He very much was the victim in this — this case couldn’t [have ended] in a more tragic way. But also, we didn’t get to know who he was as a young man, or his backstory at all.”
Whether you’re heading into “The Girl From Plainville” as someone completely unfamiliar with the texting suicide case or as someone who carefully followed every twist of the trial, here’s what you need to know about the Hulu series.
Michelle Carter and Conrad “Coco” Roy III first met in 2012 while on vacation in Florida, a moment explored in the second episode of “The Girl From Plainville.” After bonding, the two maintained a mostly electronic relationship until 2014, despite Carter and Roy living less than an hour apart, in Plainville and Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, respectively.
On July 13, 2014, Conrad was found dead in his truck in a Kmart parking lot, where authorities determined he had taken his own life. In February 2015, Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, with prosecutors alleging that deleted texts showed that Carter had helped Roy research carbon monoxide poisoning and then encouraged him to get back in his truck when he began to panic. The incriminating texts were eventually released to the public as the trial progressed.
At the heart of the case was whether text messages and phone calls were sufficient cause for manslaughter charges. Joe Cataldo, Carter’s lawyer, argued that the texts were a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, while prosecutors argued that Carter’s texts caused Roy’s death. Making the issue trickier was that Massachusetts was one of only a handful of states that did not have a law against encouraging someone to take their own life.
In July 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a Bristol County grand jury could indict Carter, determining she was “personally aware that her conduct was both reprehensible and punishable.” It also marked the first time that the state SJC had ruled that words alone were sufficient cause for a manslaughter trial.
The trial began on June 6, 2017. In opening arguments, Bristol Assistant District Attorney Maryclare Flynn shared text messages Carter sent to Roy’s mother, saying that the texts showed Carter attempting to hide her role in Roy’s death. Cataldo argued that Carter’s texts were influenced by her use of the antidepressant Celexa, and noted that Carter had been hospitalized for mental health problems.
On June 16, 2017, Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Judge Lawrence Moniz stated that Carter’s earlier texts to Roy encouraging him to take his own life were not criminal acts. But Moniz said that Carter telling Roy to get back in his truck shortly before he took his own life and Carter not alerting authorities of his actions were criminal acts, with Moniz stating that Carter “recklessly goaded her boyfriend into suicide with a series of phone calls and texts, and then failed to help him.”
Moniz sentenced Carter to 15 months in prison, a shorter sentence than prosecutors had hoped for. Following a rejected appeal by the SJC, Carter reported to prison in February 2019. She was released in January 2020, three months early on good behavior.
Carter is portrayed by Elle Fanning, who also stars in the Hulu series “The Great” and has featured in films like “Maleficent” and “Super 8.” Fanning said that after watching the HBO documentary on the case, she was drawn to the untold story of Carter and Roy’s relationship.
“You learned that their relationship was very real. It was very open and truthful and very honest,” Fanning told USA Today. “They would share their deepest, darkest thoughts, and you can tell through those messages there are two people that are hurting. They both are in very dark places, and Michelle was very alone.”
For actress Chloë Sevigny, who plays Conrad’s mother, Lynn St. Denis (née Roy), the show was a chance to provide a greater depth of understanding about everyone involved in the case.
“Watching the [HBO] documentary. I was very taken in by Lynn,” Sevigny told Boston.com. “I just found her fascinating and deeply compelling. Her presence, how she communicated. The deep love she felt for her son, how she wanted to be a part of telling his story and keeping him alive. I wanted to help her do that.”
Sevigny also believes that “The Girl From Plainville” moves beyond the headlines when it comes to understanding Carter.
“I remember seeing images of [Carter] on the cover of tabloids and immediately jumping to the conclusion that she was guilty just by the way she looked,” Sevigny said. “Just by the scowl on her face, which is unfair. I learned a lot about the case while doing this project. Going deeper into it, I found a lot more empathy for her.”
Playing Roy’s mother, Sevigny said she appreciated the chance to show the mother-son relationship at its various iterations, and not focus solely on Lynn’s actions after her son’s death.
“You get to see these moments of joy with her son as well as challenging moments she has with him where he kind of shuts her out, and I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that,” Sevigny told Boston.com. “A lot of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends — everybody, I think — will be able to relate to having someone you love shut you out to a certain degree, and wanting to be there for them but also not to be too intrusive.”
Also central to “The Girl From Plainville” is Roy himself, who is played by Colton Ryan (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and appears in all eight episodes. Ryan told The Boston Herald that after filming the series, he was left convinced that society needs to do a better job helping young people understand that there is life outside their online and electronic interactions.
“With this story, you can see the consequences of, ‘Hey! maybe it’s not the best thing to try to find all of yourself online,’” Ryan said. “If you are trying to find a sense of self, is that the right place to do it?”
While “The Girl From Plainville” roots much of its plot in facts established during the trial, it is also upfront about the fictional elements of the series. Before each episode, Hulu added a disclaimer that parts of the show “have been fictionalized solely for dramatic purposes and are not intended to reflect on any actual person or entity.”
Most of the scenes that are easily identifiable as fictionalized clearly serve a narrative purpose. At the end of the first episode of “The Girl From Plainville,” Michelle plays an episode of the FOX teen drama “Glee” as she stands in front of a mirror, carefully imitating every word of Lea Michelle’s song.
While we can’t know for sure that this solitary moment in Michelle’s room played out the way producers show it, it does give viewers a window into Michelle’s mindset, and her obsession with the show. In texts to her friends following Conrad’s death, Carter used lines from an episode of “Glee” that aired after actor Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose. Texts to friends gave the appearance that Carter was using the on-screen relationship between “Glee” characters Rachel (Lea Michelle) and Finn (Monteith) as a stand-in for her own with Conrad.
There are also multiple scenes in “The Girl From Plainville” in which Carter and Roy appear alone together. Some are plausible, like a meet-up on a Florida pier while on vacation. Others are clearly dramatized, with Fanning and Ryan on-screen together speaking their texted words to each other. By putting the duo in the same physical space, the filmmakers are able to convey how closely the two characters felt to one another, even though they rarely ever met up in person for the duration of their relationship.
While the Carter family has not publicly acknowledged “The Girl From Plainville,” the Roy family has spoken about the show on multiple occasions.
In the lead-up to the release of “The Girl From Plainville,” executive producers Liz Hannah and Patrick McManus told People that they had consulted with the Roy family while making the show.
However, St. Denis told The Independent that beyond “a few short conversations” and a brief meeting with Ryan, the actor playing Conrad Roy, the family was kept “in the dark” and was not given a preview of the script.
Prior to the show’s release, St. Denis told People that she was concerned that the show would cast Michelle in a positive light, and that “there may be an attempt to defend some of her needless and evil actions.”
However, both St. Denis and Conrad Roy Jr. told People that their primary hope for the show was that it would bring focus to their efforts to pass Conrad’s Law, which would make Massachusetts the 43rd state in the U.S. to criminalize suicide coercion. The couple hopes that the passage of such a law would act as a deterrent to similar situations in the future.
“I don’t want another family to deal with what I had to deal with,” St. Denis told People.
“The Girl From Plainville” is a cut above run-of-the-mill Lifetime movies, with Fanning and Sevigny delivering powerful performances. While the series introduces fictionalized elements into a highly public narrative, it does so in an effort to afford the audience a better understanding of the protagonists. When the show moves into the courtroom in its second half, the energy sags a bit. But there are enough moments of genuinely impactful television to be found scattered throughout the eight episodes to make it worth your while.
Given that Americans have shown a ravenous, near-bottomless desire for true crime sagas in the form of podcasts, news specials, and streaming content, it was somewhat inevitable that something akin to “The Girl From Plainville” would be made eventually. With that in mind, Hannah and McManus do a serviceable job at bringing the texting suicide case to the small screen.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please contact the following resources: Samaritans Statewide Hotline (1-877-870-HOPE); National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).
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