Editor’s Note: Spoilers for the film lie ahead.
There are two facts about me I do not run from: I have spina bifida, a neurological condition I was born with that caused paralysis from the knee down, and I love movies, sometimes beyond all reason. Growing up outside New York City, I never saw much of the first in the second That is to say, when the lights went down at the old UA theatre in Spring Valley I never saw anyone “like me”, no crutches, no leg braces, no lives lived by people whose bodies had been physically compromised. And, to confess, it rarely bothered me.
I was an angry kid. I was sad that spina bifida “happened” to me, and sadder still that no one understood what it felt like to be me, the “different” one, the one who was left out or bullied because of something he did not ask for, nor could control. I found movies to be an escape from that day-to-day struggle of simply being. Steven Spielberg’s work helped me feel less alone when I was young. Spike Lee’s movies made it okay to get angry and have a voice when I got older. Werner Herzog showed, and continues to show, there is a beautiful, scary world out there and I should be in it.
But Edward Scissorhands altered my landscape forever.
Here was a movie about an “unfinished” boy who learns to become part of society before that society has had enough of him and sends him back to the castle whence he came. It was the first time I had seen my own experience reflected back at me. Tim Burton and Caroline Thompson, the film’s masterminds, conceived a fairly tale that made me believe real life, a life where I could be myself and maybe for a little while be okay, was entirely possible. Edward became the lynchpin for years spent believing in the healing power of movies and the way stories can move the world by taking a person, no matter who they are or what their experience, and saying : “This is you. This is us.”
But the movies have taken disability, more often than not, and used it as a symbol for the brokenness of the world, like Dr. Strangelove in his wheelchair or Avatar’s paralyzed soldier who becomes empowered only when science gives him back his legs. In James Cameron’s blockbuster, to be “able-bodied”—a phrase I loathe because of the binary it assumes—equals strength. The movie’s popularity shows a willingness on the part of the audience to ignore the complexity of the disability experience and, in some way, actively root against it.
Against this backdrop comes the new British melodrama Me Before You, full of wet-eyed, snot-dripping catharsis, yet also possessing something much darker floating beneath its surface of tears wrung out over the 90 or so minute running time.
Based on a best-selling book by JoJo Moyes, and also adapted by her for the screen, Me Before You tells the story of Louisa Clark, a working-class woman who takes a job as a caretaker in the wealthy Traynor household where she is tasked with “cheering up” Will, a young man recently paralyzed from a road accident. The once athletic Will wants his old life of women, sports and success back, and if he can’t have it then he wants to go to Switzerland, as one goes, not for cuckoo clocks and chocolate but for the chance to die by assisted suicide beside a pretty lake (all the while instructing his new love interest to “live boldly” because he can no longer). I can already feel myself start to shake as I type that. How could any man resist Louisa, or Lou as she is called, when she is played by Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke? If the Mother of Dragons, with her bright eyes and her giant smile can’t bring Will back from the precipice of oblivion, then I have nothing for him.
All kidding aside, the narrative presents an issue, one that has been protested by groups like Not Dead Yet, who advocate for the fullness of life with a disability, that it is better to be dead than in a wheelchair. It uses the hot topic of assisted suicide to suggest it is a person’s right to live or die, especially if the circumstances are so dire that you can’t go rock climbing any more.
What Will Traynor believes as a character lacks nuance or dynamics of any kind. I have lived with depression since childhood and have known and loved those who have taken their lives. The movie creates a situation where Will has no other out—making him seemingly the only person in the United Kingdom who is paralyzed. No psychiatric help was offered beyond Lou’s prescriptive sunshine and funky sweaters. It is a dismal situation indeed, made all the worse by Will’s garbage personality. He seems to actively hate the woman he sees before him and spends much of the time reforming her in his own image with the idea that he will make her “Iive boldly” while he cannot because, you know, PARALYSIS.
Will’s parents have no effect, despite Janet McTeer, as Will’s mother, trying desperately to riot against the awful writing she’s been given. The only real character of note is the male nurse sent to help Will with his medical needs. Those scenes with the actor Stephen Peacocke bubble with clear-eyed truth. Here, the movie tiptoes into uncomfortable territory that might help elucidate Will’s point of view, but the movie scurries from those moments because to see Will as a full person would not make the inevitable Swiss ending tenable.
And it shouldn’t be. Suicide is not a plot device. Disability is not a symbol. Real lives matter. Policies surrounding the right to die matter. Art matters. Yet this movie builds a wall between us and them, the able-bodied and those who do not have a voice and need to be shunned. The movie reinforces that we are monsters that need to be snuffed out. And people like it, so much so, that the applause in my theater post-screening was bone-chilling. The angrier me would have been fine with this because it would have given me something to rage against, where I could cry out, “We do rule the night, and we want your children and better parking spaces!” But I wear an older man’s clothes now, and I have seen too much death and suffering and too much of the void that threatens to swallow all of us every day to simply be glib in the face of what is a real problem.
Me Before You could have reflected who we are as a community, giving the audience a front row seat to lives that are trials physical, emotional and social, but which also contain ample triumph and perseverance. The movie fails ultimately because the life of its quadriplegic “hero” never counts for something beyond being a conduit for people to funnel their relief or pride that they aren’t “like that.” Oh, the catharsis.
Is the movie as dangerous as many advocates suggest? No. The Angry Internet needs to chill out. Our technologically dependent culture spends so much time yelling at a digital wall that we forget that the real danger is in not looking one another in the eye, in not sitting down with each other, in not talking to one another. Movies do not change the world. People do. And if a person, maybe some young impressionable kid, sees this movie and decides life isn’t worth living, maybe it is on us to get that person the help he/she really needs. After all, there are far worse things to be upset about in the modern world than a half-assed, weepy film without the strength of its convictions.
My conviction is this: I’ve lived boldly with spina bifida because I got educated. I saw the world, with Thai elephants under me, mountainsides against these crutches, and Irish rain on my face. I’ve lived boldly because I’ve loved and felt loved in return. These things make it okay. They make it enough, and these rich experiences should be shared with everyone, especially through storytelling.
Every work of art is an act of courage, even if it is despairing, because it calls out that despair and let’s the living engage and wrestle with it. Me Before You uses anguish as a punchline, a narrative pull-of-the-rug to make no point at all. That’s a shame because it could have been great. It could have taught us something. It could have said something about hope as a moral obligation and love as a means of assuaging suffering, however briefly. It could have shown that life, no matter the degree of difficulty, is not only worth living, but fighting for every day. It could have been a protest against lazy movies, ignorant movies, bad movies.
The protests against this bad movie will continue, even as this will undoubtedly not be the last wrong-headed depiction of life with physical and mental challenges featured on the silver screen. But instead of yelling at the wall, especially if you haven’t seen the movie, I suggest the following: Make better art, and boldly. Make better art by us and for us and about us. Let’s look each other in the eye, embrace, discuss and create together. Who knows? We might learn something about ourselves and how to keep keeping on. As Samuel Beckett, that great poet of the absurd, once wrote, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Art is not a wall. It is a window. Go through it.
(Final Note: If someone you know is depressed or entertaining suicidal thoughts, do something to show how valued that person is … how noticed. And if you are that person, get help. Here’s a good place to start, or call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255)