It was just this past weekend that I was sitting in my home having one of my more miserable days.
I mean, seriously. I was aching. I was sick. I had body fluids coming out of places I didn't even know body fluids came out of and I couldn't make it all stop. I would love to say that I was just experiencing the flu or a cold or even a good ole' fashioned case of salmonella, but the truth is that this is my life at its most challenging as an adult with spina bifida, hydrocephalus, double amputation and multiple other disabilities.
I live independently, at least for the most part. I work full-time. I own my home. I drive my car. I'm an award-winning writer, activist and full-time program director for a state agency serving individuals with disabilities.
But, I can't lie. Sometimes, life reduces me to feeling like this little kid with a body that desperately needs help and attention somebody else to intervene because sometimes it just all feels like a little too much. I don't have family around. The one friend in my life who sort of jumped into an occasional caregiver role passed away a couple years ago and life has been even harder after that. I mean, seriously, how do you call someone and say "Hey, can you come over? Yeah, my body's spewing body fluids sort of like Old Faithful!"
You wanna know what's really weird?
My life is amazing. I mean really amazing. I mean we're talking amazing on a level I never even dreamed possible. Do I wish I had less pain? Of course. Do I wish I didn't toss projectile body fluids around my home like I'm playing laser tag? Absolutely.
You know what I really wish? Man, I wish I could have sex standing up.
I can't. I've tried. I kept falling over. Hey, at least I made her laugh.
Me Before You, a feature film based upon the best-selling novel by JoJo Mayes, isn't about me or other disabled folks like me. It's not about those who face fucking insurmountable odds every day and get up off their asses anyway and work hard, play hard, live hard, love hard, and do everything in their power to actually do what this movie suggests - live boldly.
Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, Finnick in the Hunger Games films)? He needs to eat a little more cheese with all that damn whine. Will was a former financier whose adventurous spirit was nurtured by climbing mountains and diving off cliffs and generally living a successful and carefree life.
Then, "it" happened. One day, Will becomes a quadriplegic when run over by a motorcycle while crossing the street.
Life is over. Dammit. Just when it was getting started, too. Left to stew alone within the confines of his parents' castle, literally, Will may not quite have the best case scenario for someone with a disability but it's an awfully damn good one - let's see. Hmmm. Supportive parents? Check. Cognitive abilities intact? Yep. Mostly accessible really nice digs? Definitely. Lots of paid and natural supports? That's for dang sure. Still impossibly good looking? Damn, he's got that one, too.
But, dammit, gee whiz. Will wants to climb every mountain. He doesn't want to go to Paris unless he can go as himself, you know? Walking Will not wheeling Will. He's not very fond of wheeling Will. In fact, he seems to hate him.
But then, whoa! Louisa (Emilia Clarke, The Game of Thrones) enters the picture as his paid caregiver.
Now then, I've had paid caregivers before. You know, back before I worked and could actually get the system to pay for them? Yeah, I can't afford them now. While I've had some very sweet caregivers and some downright adorable caregivers, if we're being honest a good majority of caregivers are 300 lb. pot smokers who haven't taken a shower themselves in a week but are tasked with not only bathing their client but moving them toward self-care. I mean, I can't lie, I'd let Emilia Clarke give me a bath, a shower, a sponge bath or any other kind of bath she cared to give me.
Why can't I have a caregiver like her?
Oh yeah, I forgot. I wasn't a financier and I'm not impossibly good looking and I don't live in Hollywood.
It should be noted, however, that Will has a dude nurse, Nathan (Stephen Peacocke, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), who handles all the really medical and embarrassing stuff despite the film's momentarily making Louisa deal with it so we can learn that she's human.
Now then, if you've seen trailers for Me Before You then you already know that Emilia Clarke's Louisa is tasked with being perpetually perky, perpetually encouraging, and constantly dressed like she's dancing on the good ship lollipop. So, we already know that despite Will's determination to be sullen and hopeless, Louisa is going to cheer him up and give him hope.
Okay, well, kind of. It will eventually be revealed, and this shouldn't be a spoiler for anyone who has read the book or been awake over the past month, Will has already attempted suicide and has only agreed with his parents to hang around for six months while he plots his escape to Switzerland for a legal way to end his life.
As we're learning in this election cycle, the rich folks don't always have a lot of professional boundaries and before long Louisa's not just on the clock but nearly on the cock. We learn more about her, of course. She's an under-achieving working class girl who has never really followed her dreams, something that her faux relationship with Will is supposedly encouraging her to do.
Sigh. Folks. It's 2016. I mean, seriously. Aren't we past these pathetic stereotypes by now? Can't we move away from these ridiculous "disability as tragedy" storylines?
I mean, seriously. If I looked like Will? I'd be shagging Louisa and Nathan. Together.
The only thing that truly surprises me about Me Before You, other than the fact that it's based upon a best-selling novel, is that somehow someone in studio marketing watched the film and thought "Live Boldly!"
Who's living boldly here? The suicidal gimp who doesn't practice what he preaches? The underachieving, but adorably cute, caregiver with a complete absence of ethics and an attraction to suicidal gimps (Oh yeah, there's no personality disorder there!)? For a few moments, I actually thought we might journey back to the land of the dark comedy Pumpkin and get a battle going on between the disabled dude and the athletic boyfriend. Or maybe Will lives boldly by working so hard to die?
The film, intentionally or not, affirms the notion of disability as tragedy. While I am aware that some feel this way and, yes, there are those persons with disabilities who fight for the right to die, to approach the story from this angle does nothing but exploit both lead characters. The bond between them never feels honest and never feels authentic. Of course, part of this is owing to a complete absence of chemistry between Claflin and Clarke. Claflin has openly acknowledged the difficulty in learning how to act without physicality, yet that's precisely what's lacking in his performance - that struggle with his physicality, a struggle that his character most certainly would have experienced as a new quadriplegic. Instead, it never feels like anything but "acting." Clarke, on the other hand, seems to have been tasked with portraying some sort of foil to Will's plans and her broad, overly broad, facial expressions are ridiculous and uncomfortable and, I'd dare say, even occasionally condescending. Without that "sincerity," the tragedy of it all deepens as Will's hypocritical presence in Louisa's life makes any sense of inspiration absurd while Louisa's sexualizing and trivializing of Will's experience borders on abusive even if done for all the right reasons.
Moyes, who has a son who was born deaf, explained in a 2013 Goodreads interview "Although, Me Before You discusses the right to die, what it also does in much greater depth — I hope — is lay bare the way we treat disabled people as different, when actually they are not. They’re just the same as us, but with different physical limitations.” Moyes goes on to talk about the thousands of e-mails, many from quadriplegics or their caregivers, thanking her for "creating a quadriplegic who is a romantic hero who is also sexy."
Left with this explanation from the author herself, one can only express dismay that somehow Will is being held up as some romantic hero despite exhibiting an abusive and neglectful attitude toward the relationship and zero commitment to it. Indeed, what is most troubling about Me Before You is that these self-centered, narcissistic behaviors are somehow being held up as heroic and inspirational and yet are made without regard for the disabled person's life. That's absurd and, if Moyes' statement is true, it's even more tragic that there are some folks with disabilities who actually have allowed themselves to accept that merely being an attractive presence on screen is enough.
Those involved with the film, who seem surprised by the disability community's uproar about the film's overarching negativity toward disability, are quick to point out that there are story's like Will's out there.
So, that makes it okay to exploit an entire community, eh?
I realize, of course, that it is not a filmmaker's obligation to simply build up. After all, there is much to be said about honesty and authenticity. Yet, at times, Me Before You plays out like a particularly cruel Michael Moore movie, one-sided and willing to taunt the fuck out of you with it. If, in fact, this is what romance looks like for persons with disabilities then sign me up. I'm on the next plane to Switzerland.
Here's the thing. It's not. By putting ALL of Will's problems solely on his disability, Me Before You demonizes disability. He's got money. He's got family. He's got friends. He's got better care than a good majority of people. He's got a hottie girlfriend. Yet, we are to believe that the ONLY thing that makes his life not worth living is the disability itself.
How can you not see that's a problem? Better performers, perhaps, could have found nuances in the character that would have made this story mean something. It comes close at times. Me Before You has moments when I started to think "Maybe we're onto something here," but then it would pull back into cloyingly and cutesie romanticism that was unearned and unwarranted.
While I certainly am not in favor of unearned, unnaturally happy endings, what I am in favor of is complexity of characters and stories and relationships and not simply paint-by-number stereotypes and condescending belief systems that are antiquated and not grounded in truth.
I've been through those negative feelings. I get it. I remember being sent to my parents' home myself for recovery time after my amputations. It was three days before Christmas and I was struggling to adapt to my new reality of life in a wheelchair from life on crutches. My parents, always performance-oriented, reminded me of my failures constantly over the next 48 hours and on Christmas Eve I took that overdose and ended up in the hospital.
I remember it. It's still vivid. I will probably never forget it.
But there's more. There's always more. Why is there nothing more here? Why the tragedy without the triumph? Why the depression without the exhilaration? Why the hopelessness without the rising up once again? Why not the real living boldly?
Craig Armstrong's score amplifies the film's overall cutesieness to an irritating and histrionic length, while D.P. Remi Adefarasin lenses the film in such a way that he emphasizes the romance with an overly bright framing that feels almost cartoonish and judgmental.
Me Before You could have had this story within the framework of a much more complex storyline and richer characters. This could have been such a remarkable, breakthrough film that truly lived boldly and honestly and fully. It could have been much like The Waterdance, a fairly wonderful Helen Hunt/Eric Stoltz film that dealt with hardcore issues of romance and sexuality and limitations and fear and grief and all those things. It could have accomplished so much, but instead it romanticizes the very worst of disability and treats condescendingly the thousands upon thousands of people who live it everyday and live it with an amazing fucking boldness that would make your head spin and your heart go pitter-patter.
I prayed that I would arrive in the movie theater to see Me Before You and that somehow it would have all worked out and it would all make sense. Sadly, this prayer was not answered. Instead, Me Before You has cheapened the disability experience and exploited it for a faux romanticism and a hoped for profit.
If you have a disability and you see this film and you find yourself thinking how cool it is that there's a romantic leading man in this film with a disability, I urge you reach out to others because I promise you that it gets a whole lot better than this. There are disabled men and women every day who work and live and dance and travel and fuck and succeed and are completely fucking amazing. Life can be both ways - you can need help with every single aspect of your life AND be an absolutely amazing human being. They aren't mutually exclusive. You can live boldly. This ain't it.
You want a hashtag for Me Before You? How about #DontBeWill?
You want to live boldly? Disable self-hatred. Skip this film. Disable its profit. Disable its message. Disable media messages that tell you that just because you have a disability you're less than anyone else. There's nothing bold or brave or inspirational about Will or this movie. So, go on. Do it. Live boldly. #SaytheWord #Disabled. Live into your disability. Now that's fucking bold.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic