How do you prosecute cyberbullying? With more online avenues of communication, the battleground of high school torment is quite literally everywhere. For Conrad Roy and Michelle Carter, their text relationship turns deadly. HBO’s latest two-part documentary, “I Love You, Now Die,” centers around The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter case that follows the death of Conrad Roy. The documentary does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument. Yet, it saves its real revelations for later in the game. As good as it is at examining the relationship of two disturbed teens, it only lightly touches on the forces that made them the way they were.
Roy was discovered dead in his truck in a parking lot one morning. The death was an apparent suicide. However, the police discovered texts from his girlfriend, Michelle Carter, coercing him to kill himself. This escalated to the point where, while in the act of inhaling carbon monoxide in his car, Roy calls Carter after stepping out of the vehicle. She urges him to step back into the car. He complies with these orders and finishes the job. From here, the basis of The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter case revolves around the question: Does Michelle Carter legally have blood on her hands because of her text relationship? Are her actions grounds for manslaughter?
What makes the case even more fascinating is the way that it could set a precedent. Carter and Roy only physically met a few times. Their relationship was almost entirely through text messages. The text messages the documentary shows us read like emotional pong. While much of it looks inane, there’s quite a bit that is distressing and concerning. The two of them pass emotional hot potatoes back and forth at each other. It was only a matter of time before one of them dropped the emotional hot potato.
The first episode sets the stage very well. So much of the documentary comes from Conrad and Michelle’s text messages, which are played against B-roll footage for minutes on end. Once we understand the parameters of the case, the documentary turns to Conrad’s family to closely examine the case against Michelle. While these pieces are interesting, they feel reminiscent of the media coverage of the case. We’re titilated and horrified by the candor in which Michelle goads Conrad into suicide. Yet, we’re further away from understanding their relationship and how, without being there, Michelle could get Conrad back in the truck to kill himself.
Luckily, the second episode provides the real meat of the story. It delves into the psychological challenges faced by both parties. At the end of the day, these were two kids with significant psychological challenges that turned to each other (and at times pop culture) in order to make sense of what was going on inside their mind. With little to lean on besides each other, they ended up dragging each other down rather than getting each other through a difficult time. It’s hard to take care of someone else when you can’t take care of yourself. “I Love You, Now Die” presents a particularly grim example of this adage. This elevates the documentary from merely good to a piece that has something particular and interesting to say.
If only the documentary had either been longer or more concentrated with revealing new information. The first episode is compelling. Other than the recitation of the texts, it still feels like a regurgitation of the facts of the case. The audience can get that information on the internet. Especially if one is familiar with the case, much of this could be repetitive. Once we get into the backstory and home lives of Michelle and Conrad in episode two, we better understand their mental duress. Both Conrad’s mother and father are interviewed extensively throughout the documentary. Yet, they could have been pushed more once more information was revealed. While the technology in the case is new, the feelings and mental health issues at play are more common. It would be more interesting to spend more time on these kids’ upbringing and challenges rather than more readings of the same text messages.
Between this and her previous two documentaries (“At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest”), director Erin Lee Carter cements herself as a subject expert on how crime and the internet intersect. She understands how the pressures teens and young adults face can warp their judgment. This leads to horrible actions that the internet and media can feast upon in somewhat insidious ways.
Not only are her subjects at war with their own motivations, but our media loves nothing more than a crime story involving a teenage girl. There’s a “mother eating their young” quality to how our fascination with how crimes involving young women are reported. This is certainly the case with Michelle Carter. Her actions were reprehensible. Yet, the one-dimensional man-killer that was lambasted on shows like Nancy Grace only tell one-fourth of what was going on. If Carter’s documentary does anything, it shows the need for us to talk more openly about mental health. Even killers, both virtual and physical, have stories to tell.