The Girl From Plainville

2 out of 5

Created by: Liz Hannah & Patrick Macmanus

Out of a recent spate of based-on-real-events fictionalized series – things that, notably, have happened relatively recently, within a decade or so – The Girl From Plainville struggles the most with finding a reason to exist as an 8-episode show. Setting aside that these are stories about real people, and that those are inherently of value, especially when we want to discuss or examine something tragic that’s occurred – in this case a teen suicide, and the potentially exacerbating circumstances surrounding that – I simply don’t know if there’s enough to this event to ruminate upon for 8 hours, relying on a cagey structure to withhold information unnecessarily, and somewhat trashily assuming that our human-nature “need” to watch car crashes will sustain us until the end. While the direction and writing isn’t trashy, it has that aura: Conrad Roy (Colton Ryan) had social anxiety that wasn’t helped by some pressures at home; his mostly-via-text girlfriend Michelle (Elle Fanning) suffered from different expressions of the same, perhaps also from a combination of home and school pressures; and because their lives are / were relatively “normal,” for better or worse, while Roy’s suicide, as encouraged by the text messages of Michelle, makes for a unique court case, accusing Michelle of manslaughter – the case being the focus of the show’s latter half – all we’re really doing is watching these things unfold. There’s hardly any subtext to it, which unfortunately relegates it to “tragedy of the week” style reporting, regardless of how tastefully it’s attempted, and is then stretched out to its full runtime.

Should we listen to our children more? Sure. Should we do our best to not pass our obsessions onto them, and let them be their own persons? Yes. Has social media and always-on communication abilities added new pressures to our lives with which we’re still grappling? Absolutely.

In a way, it’s good that The Girl From Plainville isn’t trying to make any big statements about these things, as they’re things that’ve been said plenty of times before, but at the same time, it renders the tone of the show… invisible. It’s unemotional. It has no clear point. It revels early on in Michelle’s “odd” behaviors by not giving them any context; it revels later on in the difficulties the legal team faced in trying to prove guilt. Both of these are fairly empty for different reasons, though, with the behavioral stuff almost too out there to really land, and the procedural stuff simply not enough to sustain the focus its given.

Fanning, once the script allows her character to have some dimension, is really excellent, but that first half in which she needs to just present her smiling self to everyone is really stilted. Partially on purpose, as Michelle could be said to have been “acting” around everyone, but the duality of that isn’t serviced by the way the telling of things is structured. Ryan is allowed much more nuance right from the outset, and is engaging when onscreen – we’ve all known (I’d suspect) personality types like his, and the fine line between head-above-water and drowning is really well represented by the actor.

Their interactions, being mostly through text, are smartly presented as in-person conversations. While I’m guessing some of these are taken right from the real accounts, some tighter / more clever editing on these could’ve helped when their words are very text specific and don’t track to one-on-one chatter. At other times, when the back-and-forths are brief, the producers very frustratingly chose to just show the chats on the phone screens, often very briefly, and often without the context of the preceding conversation. Michelle is constantly chatting with various people, and we’ll get to see the screens for only the briefest moment to absorb to whom she’s texting, and what texts came before, and it’s rarely clear if we’re supposed to know the recipient, and / or that context. The treatment of these scenes made me feel like I wasn’t supposed to care about them, which carried over to the tone of the show overall.

The Girl From Plainville is surely a worthwhile story to explore, given that there’s a point of view from which we’re exploring. If the goal was just to tell the story, then a more limited runtime likely would’ve better suited things.