Review — “Me Before You”

By: Ariana Aboulafia

Warning: This review contains spoilers about the plot of “Me Before You.”

The new film “Me Before You” has outraged several disability advocates. (Photo: Ma_Co2013/Flickr Creative Commons)

I recently had the opportunity to view the new romance film, “Me Before You”. I walked into the theater knowing next to nothing about the film, other than that it starred Hunger Games actor Sam Claflin and Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke and that it was based on a bestselling novel of the same name written by Jojo Moyes, which I had not read. The film has been heavily marketed as a romantic film featuring a main character with disabilities — and, as a disability advocate and a person with disabilities, this alone piqued my interest enough to give the film a chance.

The film begins with shots of Claflin, playing a rich, successful pretty-boy named Will Traynor with a hot blonde girlfriend and everything, it seems, going for him. That is, until one rainy morning when he is hit by a motorcycle while walking to work, leaving him a quadriplegic who can no longer do most things on his own and lives with chronic pain, among other symptoms. Enter Clarke’s character, Louisa, who is hired by Will’s mother to “cheer him up” and serve as a caretaker of sorts. You can probably see where this is going already — Will and Lou fall in love. Cue thunderstorms, nighttime walks on the beach, and long kissing scenes, and it would seem that this film was progressing just the same way as any other romance film, despite it starring a character with disabilities.

That is, until Clarke’s character finds out that Will has decided to kill himself via physician-assisted suicide (also referred to by some as euthanasia) — and, despite his love for Louisa and regardless of her efforts to get him to fall in love with life again, he goes through with his decision and chooses to die. The film ends with Louisa walking through the streets of Paris, reading a letter from Will that encourages her to live her life to the fullest despite having to live without him.

(Photo: SamTheLibrarian/Flickr Creative Commons)

It is easy to see why a film like this, with this particular ending, might anger certain disability activists and advocates. In particular, groups such as Not Dead Yet (which campaigns against physician-assisted suicide) have criticized the film for sending the message that people with disabilities cannot sustain romantic relationships and, even worse, that they cannot possibly live positive lives and are “better off dead”. An article for Buzzfeed Entertainment, for example, quoted Not Dead Yet activist Ellen Clifford who said that the film’s message was “…that disability is tragedy and disabled people are better off dead”, a message that reinforces rather than challenges the “dominant narrative carried by society and the mainstream media that says it is a terrible thing to be disabled.” Many other people with disabilities have agreed with this, adopting the hashtags #MeBeforeAbleism and #MeBeforeEuthaniasia to voice their displeasure with the film’s negative representation of disability and disabled characters.

I can certainly see the validity of this perspective — after all, no one wants to walk out of a movie feeling like the overall message was that society would be better if they were dead. However, I also believe that the source of some of this criticism must be considered; Clifford, for example, works for an organization is staunchly against physician-assisted suicide, so it makes sense that she would not have many kind words to say about a film that portrays (and perhaps even romanticizes) that very practice. For the same reason, I believe it is important here to expose my own biases — I am strongly in favor of physician assisted suicide, as long as it is done in a responsible manner, and believe that all humans deserve the right to die with dignity, perhaps particularly those who are living with chronic or terminal pain or illness. Likely at least partially because of these biases, I had a slightly different impression of “Me Before You” than several other disability advocates and activists.

“Me Before You” is the story of one man with disabilities, who could not find a way to live with the physical pain and emotional turmoil that his disabilities brought him each day and chose to die. It is a tragedy, yes, but it is not his disability that is portrayed as the tragedy — it is his choice. “Me Before You” acknowledges that people deserve to have the right to choose whether they live or die, while still noting that choosing death will be earth-shattering for those you leave behind. Far from romanticizing euthanasia or sending the message that disabled lives are not worth living, I believe the film shows that all lives are worth living, as long as they are lives filled with love — a message that may be cheesy, but rings true nonetheless.

So, how did this message get so twisted? In my view, at least, that question can be answered with one word: representation.

If there were tons of films and television shows showing happy, functional people with disabilities — visible and invisible — living their lives, falling in love, having families, and going on adventures, then one film showing one person’s tragic story of being unable to do all of those things with his disabilities would not be such a big deal. However, as anyone who follows the film industry or has heard of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite knows, Hollywood in general does not do a great job of portraying diverse characters, from people of color to people with disabilities. Because of this lack of representation, when there finally is a mainstream film featuring a man with disabilities as a main character — and he freakin’ kills himself at the end of it — it is easier for audiences to walk away with the idea that all people with disabilities feel the way he did or should feel that way, as if their lives are not worth living.

In addition, this message may come through particularly clearly to someone whose daily contact with actual people with disabilities is limited — the very people who could benefit from a film showing a positive representation of people with disabilities. The writers, directors, and producers of “Me Before You” cannot be wholly blamed for this lack of representation, but the film and its writers can and should be held accountable for their ignorance of how a film with this message may have come across to people with disabilities and to those who love them.

I can tell you one thing — I am a disabled person, and my life is well worth living. Like Will Traynor, I have a very special, able-bodied woman in my life who I am in love with, and who is in love with me; and there is absolutely nothing that could ever convince me to leave her and to leave my life, despite my chronic pain and illness. But that’s the thing: “Me Before You” is Will Traynor’s story, not mine, and he made his decision, and every day I make mine. And that’s okay.

My only hope is that, at some point in the near future, stories like mine — stories of the thousands of people with disabilities who truly embody this film’s tagline and choose to “live boldly” each and every day — will become more common than the stories of the incredibly small percentage of people who choose instead to give up on life, as Will Traynor did. Perhaps when the representation of disabled characters increases, we will be more able as disability activists and as members of society more generally to view stories like this for what they are: individual stories of tragedy, rather than one-size-fits-all messages of worthlessness.

Ariana Aboulafia is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in Law, History, and Culture who only watches rom-coms under extreme duress.

Contact her via email here, follow her on Twitter here.

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