fSo, the movie is not about an epileptic, but majority of its plot is about a man with a disability. As a member of the disability community, I thought it would be fun to review. Initially, I thought this move would be a little like Love and Other Drugs. You know, that movie with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hathaway’s character has Parkinson’s but these two zany twenty-somethings find love in each other and deal with her disability together, and it’s all very romantic and wonderful. Because of my predisposed gravitation towards angsty romantic dramas, I actually wanted to see Me Before You. I enjoy a romantic story with a male lead full of angst and general broodiness (Mr. Rochester, anyone?), so I obviously wanted to see it. I mean, I was willing to take 5 public buses for an hour and a half there and back to see this movie. Needless to say, I was pissed and disappointed after watching this movie, both for the time lost and my general dissatisfaction with the movie’s treatment of disability.
Set in an English country town, Me Before You is the film adaptation of JoJo Moyes‘ story of the angst-ridden romance between Louisa “Lou” Clark (played by Emilia Clarke) and Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin). Lou is a 26-year-old woman who wears interesting outfits but her life is at a standstill because she’s had the same job for six years in order to support her family. Conversely, Will was a rich, successful businessman with a beautiful girlfriend and a nice apartment in London before he was paralyzed. After his paralysis, Will makes the decision to end his life through doctor-assisted suicide, but he gives his parents six months before doing so. For these six months, Will’s mother hires Lou as his caretaker. Upon learning that Will plans to end his life, Lou will attempt to change his mind and show him that life is worth living. And through the severe amount of angst bestowed upon us in this story, these two will fall in love, but clearly not enough for Will to stay alive.
If this movie sounds like all the clichés, that is because it has all of them. Not only is this movie problematic in terms of basic construction, the film has received a ton of criticism from disability advocates for its ableist plotline. As noted by Bitch Media‘s S.E. Smith , “Me Before You represents a crystallization of the ableist gaze.” Smith notes that Me Before You represents disability in a mainstream Hollywood-approved manner, in which having a disability is treated as a total detriment to one’s quality of life to the point that a decent quality of life cannot be achieved.
For those of you unaware, ableism means to discriminate someone for their physical or mental disabilities, and this film does this in many ways. The entirety of Will Trainor’s character is to bemoan the fact that his previous life ended once he became paralyzed. For literally the first 48 minutes of the film (I timed it, by the way, feel free to do the same), all this character does is disassociate his current state of disability from his life as an able-bodied individual, as if these two lives are mutually exclusive from one another. He cannot be the same person or have the same quality of life because his new state of being prohibits this. So, he chooses to end his life instead. This sense of loss he is meant to feel is explicitly shown in the very first scene. The movie begins with Will’s able-bodied self, waking up next to his serious girlfriend in a nice apartment. He gets ready for work, confident in his actions and manner, and he strides out the door in the rain. He is then hit by a motorcycle, but just before impact, the title sequence appears. This initial glimpse into the life Will had before his injury is juxtaposed with the Will we meet later in the story.
[Just as a quick side note, why are the apartments of successful people always white? Not just the walls, but the furniture, the lights, and the people? Literally, everything is white.]
After the title sequence, we zero-in on Lou Clark’s life, and we are meant to understand that she is the opposite of the once high-achieving, sporty Will. Her life is stagnant, because she didn’t go to school in order to help her financially struggling family. She was fired from the café job she’s had for six years, and her life overall is at a standstill. After she accepts the position of Will’s caretaker, both Lou and the audience meet a newly paralyzed Will, who is meant to contrast the initial Will at the beginning of the movie. This Will is meant to portray a man who has truly given up on life. His hair has taken on a Jesus-like appearance with complete with a budding Duck Dynasty-esque beard. He treats others around him cruelly, and majority of his lines in these first moments consist of reaffirming the fact that he is depressed about being quadriplegic. Upon meeting this post-accident Will, the first thing he does is groan and wheeze in a way that is supposed to scare Lou. This action is something people usually associate with the stereotypical disabled individual; making abrupt sounds and noises that disrupt speech. It is meant to be a comedic moment in the film, but it has the opposite effect. This moment stops the film’s narrative and creates unnecessary interruptions in introducing these new characters. Not only is this moment tone deaf in terms of writing, it utilizes one of the most offensive stereotypes of people with disabilities, relying on this stereotype to create some sort of superficial comedic moment.
I’m going to quickly bypass many other examples of ableism to focus on the very end. As we know, suicidal ideation is a serious condition as a result of mental illness, and it can often be an additional disability accompanying other disabilities through traumatic or life-altering experiences. Inherently, suicide is not selfish. However, Will Traynor’s motivations are selfish, so his choice to end his life can only be interpreted as selfish by the audience. Throughout the story, Will shows the pretense of changing as he returns strong feelings for Lou, but he ultimately decides to complete suicide, which then undermines any potential developmental change of his character throughout the entire film.
This ending to the story only added to my discontent as a viewer. The movie’s ending confirms that it is easier to kill off a character rather than deal with the complexities of living with a disability, which may be more the fault initial author of the book. Regardless, it is lazy writing to have the character die rather than deal with the consequences from this new chapter in Will’s life. This film was such a disappointment because both the screenwriters and initial author of the book had the chance to deal with some real questions about transitioning from an able-bodied individual to a mobility-impaired individual. They had the opportunity to discuss quality of life, community, finding autonomy, self-identity, and other great questions of dealing with an event like this. Instead, all writers involved succumbed to the ableist narrative. They killed off the character rather than deal with the complexities that come with living with a disability.
I’m not here to speak for all individuals with disabilities, but I am here to speak as a member of the disabled community. I was truly disappointed in Me Before You because they had a chance to do something mainstream Hollywood has never done before. They had the chance to really explore the ways in which people with disabilities create lives for themselves and thrive in their communities, both accepting and embracing their disabilities. This story had the tools to discuss all of these interesting, thought-provoking questions, but the story revolved around the able-bodied character. While the film argued that the able-bodied heroine should seek out to live life fully, the quadriplegic individual should not do the same. In the end, the writers came to the same conclusion every movie has about disabled individuals: that a good quality of life and having a disability are mutually exclusive.
So, save yourself the money and the time and watch Love and Other Drugs instead. It’s problematic for an entirely different set of reasons, but at least it’s not overtly ableist. And it’s just better writing.