'The Girl From Plainville' review: Elle Fanning shines in otherwise mediocre drama

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Michelle (Elle Fanning) and Lynn Roy (Chloe Sevigny) in The Girl From Plainville (Starzplay)
Michelle (Elle Fanning) and Lynn Roy (Chloe Sevigny) in The Girl From Plainville (Starzplay)

Do words really possess the power of a poised pistol? That dilemma dominates The Girl from Plainville, a new long form series due launching on Starzplay from Sunday, 10 July.

Documenting as it does the real life legal case of Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), an American teenager, who in 2017 stood trial for the involuntary manslaughter of Conrad ‘Co’ Roy III (Colton Ryan).

Unfortunately, while the real-life conceit is fascinating, this translates into a middle of the road melodrama which rarely grips or engages the viewer.

Read more: The true story behind The Girl From Plainville

Adapted from an article by New York Times magazine journalist Jesse Baron, The Girl From Plainville is produced by Liz Hannah (Mindhunter) and Patrick Macmanus (Homecoming). Other notable creatives on the project include Sarah Cho, who was pivotal in bringing Prime Video drama Them to screens a little while back.

The Girl From Plainville (Starzplay UK)
The Girl From Plainville (Starzplay UK)

Audiences would expect to get into the murky moral quandary which sits at the centre of this show fast, bu, what they get instead is a poorly paced pedestrian melodrama with hints of a great performance from Elle Fanning.

Chloë Sevigny (Russian Doll) is wasted as Conrad’s mother Lyn, while Norbert Leo Butz gets equally short shrift as his father Conrad Roy II. Their complex relationship is defined by divorce and tragedy, reducing them down to dramatic archetypes in a moral fable with no backbone.

Scott Gordon (Kelly AuCoin) in The Girl from Plainville (Starzplay)
Scott Gordon (Kelly AuCoin) in The Girl from Plainville (Starzplay)

Considerable screentime is given over to the circumstances surrounding Conrad’s suicide, while Michelle is intentionally kept ambiguous. This mean that her motivations in the aftermath prove to be little more than a grey area, with hints of self-interest and flashes of genuine emotion.

Unfortunately, soon after the opening episode The Girl From Plainville slips into TV movie territory, as police detective Scott Gordon (Kelly AuCoin) gets brought into the mix.

Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in July

The show soon morphs into a combination of teen suicide melodrama, police procedural and transparent whodunnit. Fortunately, AuCoin at least makes an impression as Gordon, imbuing him with a dogged determination, while Michelle’s mask of normalcy starts to slip and he suspects she is much more than merely complicit in Conrad’s death.

Watch a trailer for The Girl From Plainville

As for Colton Ryan, who portrays the victim in this series, it is a portrayal which gets consistently overshadowed by Fanning. Solely seen in flashback, Conrad is a mass of emotional contradictions, some of which stem from his parents’ divorce.

Tragic as these real-life problems are, dramatically it distracts and becomes lost amongst a multitude of other tangents all vying for attention. As a result, audiences never get under the skin of Conrad, making him little more than an afterthought in his own cautionary tale.

Read more: New on Prime Video in July

Reams of the written word and rose-tinted half-truths conveyed in flashback were never going to cut it, primarily because the question at the heart of this drama is more intriguing than the end result.

There is no denying the quality Elle Fanning brings to this show, as she continually hints at a darkness beneath Michelle’s convivial demeanour, but elsewhere The Girl From Plainville fails to measure up.

(Taunton, MA  06/05/17)  Attorney Joseph Cataldo appears with client Michelle Carter at Taunton Court on Monday, June 05, 2017 Staff Photo by Faith Ninivaggi (Photo by FAITH NINIVAGGI/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
The real Michelle Carter at Taunton Court in June, 2017. (Getty Images)

As this show moves into courtroom mode later on, with the arrival of attorney Teresa Adams (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and assistant DA Katie Rayburn (Aya Cash), more cooks join the kitchen. Not only bringing crucial elements to the narrative, but muddying the waters further in terms of structure, whilst simultaneously sapping momentum.

Which is why the moral question remains the saving grace of this show, as audiences are asked to consider the power of words in contemporary society. How people can be convinced to commit suicide through persuasion or emotional coercion, speaks directly to this moment in time.

Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) in The Girl from Plainville (Starzplay)
Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) in The Girl from Plainville (Starzplay)

A moment in which blackout challenges are seeing children die through asphyxiation, while those in power avoid accountability propped up by their arrogance and entitlement.

Read more: Everything new on Paramount+ in July

Beyond the mediocre melodrama, teen suicide navel gazing and wasted ancillary characters, The Girl From Plainville still has some pertinent points to make.

It speaks to a generation defined by their online presence, who pursue the adoration of a silence majority, then wonder why there is an inherent disconnect between who they are and what they project out into the world.

For a more caustic interpretation of these themes, which taps into our baser need for popularity, audiences should consider looking up 1995's To Die For, directed by Gus van Sant.

That movie saw an equally disarming Nicole Kidman convincing a young and impressionable Joaquin Phoenix to do something diabolical for her benefit.

It may not speak directly to the specific generational themes being addressed in this show, but at least it goes for the throat.

For confidential emotional support contact The Samaritans at any time by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org

The Girl From Plainville is available to stream on Starzplay from 10 July. Watch a teaser below.