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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Deciding for Myself on Me Before You

I felt like I was crossing the virtual picket lines when I went to see Me Before You. After seeing so many people with disabilities protesting the movie as an affront to our “community,” I decided to see it for myself.

Louisa “Lou” Clark (played by Emilia Clarke) is hired as a companion for Will (Sam Clafin), who became almost completely paralyzed from the neck down except for some use of his hands after being hit by a motor scooter. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to add that Lou is devastated when she learns Will has planned to kill himself.

Without considering the disability issues in the film, Me Before You just wasn’t very good. It wasn’t my type of film, but I tried to accept the movie on its own terms as a love story, and I didn’t buy that the two main characters were in love. Lou is in love with the idea of being Will’s savior, and never truly crosses over into love. And I think it’s very clear that Will feels some affection for her, but not much more.

At the risk of taking my life in my hands—at least my life writing about disability issues—I think there’s been a overreaction from people with disabilities to Me Before You.

The biggest complaint about the film—and this may qualify as a spoiler—seems to be that Will goes through with his plans for Lou. He wants her to “live boldly,” and he removes himself to allow her to do that.

Well . . . no, he doesn’t.

Will makes the decision to end his life before ever meeting Lou. In order for the assertion that Will chooses to die for Lou to have any validity, we’d need to see Will so happy that he wants to forgo his plans and pursue a life with Lou, and then decide to kill himself so that she wouldn’t be burdened by him. That never happens.

There are a few scenes in which Lou and Will might appear to be falling in love. They attend a wedding together, Lou rushes to his side when Will is hospitalized, and they take a trip that becomes somewhat romantic. But at the end of the wedding evening, Will wants to hold on to the moment before going back to dealing with his reality as a disabled person as if the two things are separate. The hospital sequence centers on Lou’s emotion, not Will’s. Even on the trip, there’s no sense that Will is falling in love. At best, he’s again wistful for a life with a woman as an able-bodied man.

Lou’s feelings are driven by her naïveté, which is clear throughout the film. She’s a woman who bounced from job to job. She would have taken a job as a clerk as fast as she took the job with Will. She has no experience with disability, but she almost instantly begins researching things like adaptive sports as if all Will needs is a little fresh air.

Me Before You is Lou’s story. Had it been Will’s story, we could demand more of the insight into him that we never get. Instead, Lou and the viewer are told about him waking up screaming and the pain he’s in, but we never really see it. I don’t think she ever really understands what he feels.

However, there’s enough of a depiction of Will that I agree with the filmmakers that this is one person’s choice, and in no way makes a statement about the value of the lives of disabled people. Will’s a fairly classic “rich kid” with the world at his feet when he has his accident. After his accident, Will lives with his parents an isolated existence in what Lou describes as a castle. They travel on a private airplane to the vacation spot she and Will eventually go to. And Will never interacts with other people with disabilities.

When we first meet Will . . . to put it really, really nicely . . . he acts like a jerk. Will imitates someone with a severe speech disability (there’s no hint of Will actually having difficulty speaking in the film). I don’t know if it was meant to scare Lou off, be funny, or something else, and I don’t care. It was disgusting.

But if we really want to see more characters with disabilities, we have to be willing to accept that we’re not always going to like everything they do.

Will is depressed. He’s totally unhappy with the prospect of living the rest of his life with a disability. It’s not a message about the value of the lives of people living with disabilities. It’s the story of one fairly ill-equipped guy, who’s likely never faced anything close to adversity, dealing with his new circumstances in ways that don’t seem unheard of.

I’m not endorsing what Will ultimately chooses to do. But his emotion and desires can’t be rejected because we disagree with them.

In fact, it’s possible to make the argument that Will going through with his plans shows respect for someone with a disability guiding their own life choice. The unhappy disabled guy finding meaning in life despite his disability because his friend-for-hire—a fairly condescending concept—falls for him, wouldn’t exactly have been a boon for the disability movement.

Of course, it would have been very nice if the one disabled character that we have in a major motion picture at the moment didn’t want to off himself. But the lack of other movies with disabled characters shouldn’t be a burden to this film, or any other, which actually attempts to portray a character with a disability. Me Before You should be evaluated on its own merits.

Overall, those merits don’t add up to much. I have to believe that the overreaction to Me Before You has only heightened interest in a movie that deserves very little.
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