Me Before You opened two weekends ago, hyped as “the most romantic film of the year.” Entertainment Weekly called it “charming” in a B+ review, and according to Rotten Tomatoes, 80 percent of audiences loved it. “Live boldly” a Twitter hashtag insists. But with every gushing review I read, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach grows.
Me Before You isn’t romantic.
Although the first part of the movie sets up what might have been a decent film, Me Before You pulls the rug out from under its audience with a disgusting bait-and-switch—one that’s particularly callous and damaging toward disabled viewers.
The Plot and the Problem
The premise is that Will Traynor is a wealthy quadriplegic struggling with depression; Louisa Clark is a “free spirit” with questionable fashion sense who becomes Will’s caretaker. The movie follows along rom-com lines as the two get to know one another, going to concerts and on trips. However, in the end, Will reveals that he’s going through with the plan he’s had since the beginning of the film: to kill himself at Dignitas, a real-life assisted suicide center in Switzerland. And he does—leaving heaps of money to Lou, who is seen happily traipsing around Paris at the end of the film.
Throughout the film, characters pop up to reinforce the idea that Will’s right to choose is paramount. Because of his disability, the pushback against suicide is muted. Stepping back from the narrative, it isn’t Will’s choice to die, but Jojo Moyes’, the able-bodied author of the book and screenplay—who admits she had never met a person with quadriplegia before writing the book.
Fundamentally, Me Before You is a story about a disabled person killing themselves—for the “greater good” of other characters—written, directed, and acted by abled people for abled people. The director, Thea Sharrock, did not want to show “Will being taken in and out of his chair, or put in a hoist over a bath” so she would not give the “impression… of difficulty” or “make audiences too uncomfortable.” Essentially, the death of a disabled individual is presented as more “normal” than the life of one.
“It’s a fictional story,” Sharrock backpedals to The Hollywood Reporter. “The message of the film is to live boldly, push yourself, don’t settle.”
But with the film ending in Will’s death, the entire movie collapses in on itself in a mess of hypocrisy and contradiction. Live boldly—unless you’re disabled? Don’t settle—for caring for a loved one who’s disabled? The director doesn’t want to show the difficulties of Will’s life, only to have him kill himself over these very struggles. The entire film is spent proving Will can be the person that Louisa needs, only to undercut that at the end. Just kidding, the movie says, disabled people can never truly live life to the fullest.
The fact that Jojo Moyes spent so much time researching the physical nature of quadriplegia but didn’t talk to any quadriplegic individuals about their own experiences is telling. The fact that Will will never physically improve is repeated often, as though that justifies his final choice.
This isn’t an isolated story, but a reflection of a deeply troubling cultural narrative that’s only been getting stronger. It’s hard to ignore the fact that California’s legalization of assisted suicide was passed a week after the film’s release—making California the fourth state in the U.S. to legalize it.
It’s no wonder that people all over the world—especially disabled people—have been protesting this film since before its release. Using hashtags like #MeBeforeAbleism and #MeBeforeEugenics, disabled activists have spoken out on social media and organized protests at theaters. I reached out to several of them to talk about the film.
Activists Weigh In
Michele Kaplan, a New York-based wheelchair user, explains why Me Before You isn’t just a story. “The public has no exposure to a person in a wheelchair. When I go out in the streets I get nasty looks, and people say things like ‘Oh my god, if I had what you had, I’d kill myself.’ Where are they getting these ideas from? Movies and TV shows that say the only chance of happiness for a disabled person is to be cured—or to die. God forbid we find happiness as is. Not every story is a writer’s story to tell, but I hope that, if nothing else, this movie will start the conversation and things will change.”
Almost every person I spoke with focused in on the fact that although Will had a physical therapist, he received no mental health help for his clinical depression.
“Most people are depressed when it first happens because it’s this big change,” Kaplan says. “So, how about a therapist, maybe medication or a support group for people in his shoes? Nope, he just needs a manic pixie girl to save him!”
“No disabled person will say that being disabled comes with no effect on mental health, especially anyone who became disabled later in life,” adds one writer, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“For me, my physical disability and my mental health are very closely linked together,” says Madeleine, a disabled activist. “And I feel like a lot of people who say ‘Oh, it was Will’s choice and you have to respect that’ don’t have a lot of actual experience with suicidal ideation and depression.”
“And if Will wasn’t disabled, would suicide even be an acceptable option?” Kaplan points out.
She pointed me to Dominick Evans, an organizer with Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group that opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.
“The film is profiting off a very recent American history of forced sterilization and murder of disabled people,” Madeleine says. “And there are a million fictional stories about disabled people dying but barely any about actually living. It’s no wonder Will wanted to kill himself with everyone, both in the story and outside of it, expecting him to do it.”
For many, the reality of disability is different. “Yes, getting used to needing a wheelchair was a big change,” Kaplan says. “But the hardest thing that I have faced is the incessant systemic and social ableism that I experience on a daily basis, no matter how comfortable I am in my skin.”
However, many newly disabled people struggle with the exact same issues Will struggles with; most of the people I spoke with are worried that seeing Me Before You will cause these people to come to the same conclusion the film’s protagonist comes to.
Alexandra Jones, who is partially paralyzed from the waist down, felt extremely let down by the film.
“From the trailer, [Me Before You] was set up like this amazing rom-com that just happened to have a disabled man in a wheelchair as the main person. Someone I could relate to. I kind of fell for it, hook line and sinker, so I researched it. It was then that I realized that it painted [Will] and therefore me in a horrific light, which strikes me because I’m struggling with being a burden and with finding someone who can love me. So giving me a romance movie and telling me I’ll only get that if I die? Or that I’m not worthy of it? It caused a spike in my depression. It caused self-harm and worse for me. It paints [suicide] as a noble choice and it isn’t, and I’m so scared that people will start to believe it. I’m terrified that my choice of living will be taken away because people believe this. If I had seen this movie when I first had to be in a wheelchair, I wouldn’t have survived.”
The author has explained the title of the film as “who I was before I met you” however, with the abled protagonist profiting from the death of the disabled love interest, it’s hard to see the title as anything but “my life is more valuable than yours.”
Made in the image of God, disabled lives are no less important or valuable than anyone else’s, and we should afford them real dignity—not a false “Dignitas” that shames them into death, but a real, lasting honor and respect. As everyone who so kindly gave me their time and words exhibited, everyone has the right to live boldly. Disabled people have the right to love and be loved, to act, direct, write, and see themselves represented on screen—to live, not as an ‘inspiration’ or sob story for abled people, but as wonderfully created individuals in their own right.