In an eye-opening new documentary, the story of the teenager accused of coercing her boyfriend to kill himself via text is brought to light
Documentary film-maker Erin Lee Carr specializes in locating the real story behind what would otherwise be clickbait: her feature debut Thought Crimes analyzed the so-called cannibal cop and found a guy at the mercy of his own narrative, while her follow-up Mommy Dead and Dearest captured the passion and obsession of the Dee Dee Blanchard case now popularized by the drama series The Act. So when most people looked at the account of Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts teen accused of hounding her boyfriend to a tragic suicide, they saw nothing more than scandal. Carr looked a little closer, however, and discovered a layered saga with the potential to speak volumes about the public beyond the courtroom.
One of the things I enjoyed about this project and I use the word enjoyed carefully, because this is a film about suicide its that there was a lot of societal reckoning, Carr tells the Guardian over the phone, a few days before her latest effort I Love You, Now Die premieres on HBO. This case covers so much: free speech, mental health, girlhood, boyhood. For me, it was in part about feminism, which speaks to how we view criminal cases involving women through a set of archetypes. There were so many angles through which we could explore this case.
Carter had landed in the middle of a media frenzy when the shocking details of her relationship with the deceased came to light. Carter had spent a little over two years exchanging text messages and other online communiques with one Conrad Roy, a young man she had met while on vacation in Florida. Though they only lived a brief drive from one another back in New England, their interactions were limited almost solely to the realm of the digital, where the intense bond between them slowly soured. Carter began sending increasingly disturbing sentiments to Roy, eventually building up to exhortations for him to take his own life. When a distraught Roy sealed himself in his exhaust-filled car and stumbled out after having second thoughts, it was Carter that encouraged commanded, some alleged him to get back inside.
The case was literally unprecedented, a new standard-setter for manslaughter allegations with its assertion that a killing could be carried out secondhand via text message. Carrs film crystallizes just how complex pulling off that legal gambit had to be to succeed, as counsel on both sides repeatedly defined and redefined the terms of Roy and Carters mental health. Their saga started to resemble an after-school special supercharged by technological connectivity. Carter herself invoked Romeo and Juliet in their texting; the comparison, in all its overcooked dramatics and rash action, was apt.
The citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts saw red during the ensuing trial, placing the blame for Roys death squarely on Carter as an ice-cold manipulator. Carr wanted to take a more studied, nuanced approach to a subject she saw as wrestling with her own demons of loneliness and delusion. At first I thought it was all inhuman, the director admits. I mean, who talks to another person like that? So there was an evolution for me, in my thinking. Being part of this story in a long-term way helped me come to understand what Michelle was dealing with.
Carr wanted to give everyone involved with the litigation a fair shake, to show how Carters supposed predation could have been a function of her own instability. She had gone to the Bay State with the intention of producing an episode for a series she was planning at the time, but as she delved into the court documents and archival materials, she got a sense that she had struck on something bigger. She dedicated herself to learning everything she could about the sad tale of Carter and Roy, doing the journalistic legwork of conducting interviews and putting together quotes. But embedding herself in the scene, and gaining entry to the courtroom proceedings as the lone video presence, proved no simple feat.
Access on this one was deeply difficult, Carr remembers. Nobody wanted to talk to some goon from Brooklyn. It was about us continually asking but not bothering people. In terms of the court system, I feel there was a lot of luck involved. They basically told us, You know what? Uh, yeah, you guys can have your shot. We showed up the first day in court for opening statements, and if youre the camera inside the courtroom, that means you have to be the pool camera providing footage for the news organizations. We had to make sure our footage was relayed back to all the news teams, and on day one, everything was malfunctioning.