HBO is diving into two-part true-crime documentaries this month, which feels like a bit of a dumbing-down of its brand. An exception would be the first of those offerings, “I Love You, Now Die,” a text-heavy look at the strange case of Michelle Carter from director Erin Lee Carr, whose track record includes the even stranger “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”
The documentary comes almost exactly five years after 18-year-old Conrad Roy committed suicide, dying in his car in a Fairhaven, Mass., parking lot. Police ultimately placed the blame on Carter, then 17, who had encouraged Roy to kill himself in a trove of discovered text messages, leading to national headlines about the “texting suicide” case, which raised troubling questions about potentially dangerous uses of newer means of communication and social media.
Carr’s take, however, proves quite sympathetic to Carter, working from the notion that there was a whole lot we didn’t hear about their bizarre relationship – a boyfriend and girlfriend who exchanged thousands of texts but actually met in person only a handful of times.
New York magazine’s Marin Cogan, one of the journalists who closely followed the case, calls it a “thoroughly modern romance … conducted almost entirely online.”
Inevitably, much of the narrative unfolds via those messages, which makes “I Love You, Now Die” a documentary that you read as much as watch. Carr seeks to smooth over that awkward format by setting the typed-out script to music that sounds like something from a David Lynch movie, which seems appropriate, since this is all about florid teen love, albeit as conducted via cellphone.
Carter was labeled “heartless” at the time, presented by prosecutors as someone who coveted the sympathy and attention that went with being known as the “grieving girlfriend.”
Yet as the documentary makes clear, the story is more complicated than that, including Roy’s mental-health issues and family strife, and Carter’s infatuation with the TV series “Glee” – identifying with the Lea Michele character, and the death of co-star Cory Monteith – in a way that might have blurred fiction and reality.
Perhaps foremost, the documentary asserts – provocatively, if not entirely persuasively – that the media and prosecutors assumed the worst of Carter because of an uncharitable view of teenage girls as being manipulative and cruel.
A separate but equally concerning argument involves whether the criminal-justice system is currently suited to handle the broader implications raised by new forms of social media and influence. In that respect, Carter’s case feels like a trial not only generationally disconnected from those adjudicating it, but where technology has raced ahead of an overdue discussion regarding the ethical implications of how it’s used.
“I Love You, Now Die” might be short on definitive answers for these problems, but it raises all the right questions. Whether Carter was treated unfairly, the loud and clear message is that these kind of conversations need to take place before the next death that, rightly or wrongly, gets attributed to texting.
“I Love You, Now Die” will air July 9-10 at 8 p.m. on HBO. CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.