‘Me Before You’: A Cinderella Story for the Suicide Age
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Me Before You, a newly released film that explores the theme of assisted suicide as a personal choice that should be accepted, pushes the boundaries of the usual romantic tearjerker relished by teenage girls.
Still, they have flocked to see the Warner Bros.’ film, based on Jojo Moyes’s 2012 best-selling novel of the same name, since it opened in theaters last weekend.
During a recent screening of Me Before You at the Redwood City Cineplex in northern California, the predominantly teenage audience was riveted by the love story of Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke), a sweet, modern-day Cinderella, and Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who has lost his will to live.
Two years earlier, Will was a successful financier, with a classy lifestyle to match. After he suffered an accident that left him a quadriplegic, he retreated to his aristocratic family’s real-life castle.
When Lou arrives to serve as his paid companion, he has already made plans to end his life with a dose of lethal medication administered at a Swiss clinic.
Lou soon beguiles Will with her quirky sense of humor and zest for life. He reciprocates by helping her broaden her horizons. She learns to enjoy foreign films with subtitles and live classical-music concerts.
When Lou discovers Will’s plans to end his life, she is appalled. Her working-class mother, a religious woman, contends that assisted suicide is no different than “murder.”
Can this 21st-century Cinderella change her prince’s mind? Should she even try?
Suicide is surely a strange theme for a date-night flick, but suicide rates have sharply increased in recent years, and at least some of the teens watching Me Before You in the Redwood City theater have probably mourned classmates, friends or relatives who took their own lives.
In the city of Palo Alto, just a few miles south of the theater, a slew of high-school students have died in recent years, after throwing themselves in front of oncoming trains. In February, the resulting spike in suicides prompted the Centers for Disease Control to launch an investigation into the causes of a localized epidemic.
Yet, even as the Palo Alto school community has searched for a better way to identity and help students who want to take their own lives, California has moved to legalize assisted suicide. Last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act. And as of June 9, just days after the opening of Me Before You, assisted suicide was legal in the Golden State.
Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles described the passage of the controversial law as a “failure of our love,” during a June 1 Mass at Santa Teresita, a home for seniors. Bishop O’Connell added that it was also a “failure of heart … that we can’t think of anything else we can do for people who have been told that they have terminal illness than to … say, ‘Go ahead; just commit suicide.’”
In 2015, as Church leaders joined a state coalition to stop the bill’s passage, advocates for the disabled and mental-health experts argued that legalizing assisted suicide would have dangerous consequences. The elderly and the disabled would be pressured to cut short their lives, rather than burden relatives, and patients battling depression might give up their fights.
With the release of Me Before You, disability activists like Emily Ladau have attacked what they see as a narrow, one-dimensional treatment of a disabled man and his challenges. “The movie’s tagline is: ‘Live Boldly. Live Well. Just Live.’ Yet, Will does quite the opposite,” argued Ladau, in an article for Salon.
“The entire premise rests on the belief that life with a disability is not worth living. In spite of each of the characters in Will’s life trying to persuade him otherwise, the fact remains that Moyes imagines a world in which disability is synonymous with misery and assisted suicide is the only solution.”
Suicide authorities like Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the medical ethics program at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine, have raised additional concerns. Kheriaty contends that the promotion of assisted suicide will result in an increase in the overall suicide rate.
In a November 2015 op-ed in The Washington Post, Kheriaty cited a study published by British researchers who found that “legalizing assisted suicide in other states has led to a rise in overall suicide rates — assisted and unassisted — in those states.”
Yet many Americans resist this warning, and some clearly question whether the legalization of assisted suicide, which was presented by its supporters as a vital reprieve for patients dealing with painful terminal conditions, will foster suicidal thoughts in a young person, who may be overwhelmed by life’s challenges.
“If you leave the religious and moral issues out for a moment, the question people are struggling with is this: Is assisted suicide okay?” noted Dave Ross, the division director for behavioral-health services at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Ross has witnessed the devastating impact of the Palo Alto high-school suicides and has also monitored the debate over assisted suicide.
“If a teenager kills himself in front of a train, you can view that as [the young person] depriving those left behind from his presence,” he said. “In assisted suicide, a person is gravely ill, and there is the idea that this will relieve the family from a burden.”
“Is it okay in one context and not another?” he said.
Delving into the case of Will in Me Before You — a young man who refuses to pick up the new hand he has been dealt through a tragic accident — Ross suggested that young viewers should understand that Will is cutting off a rich-if-unpredictable future. A newly disabled man like Will doesn’t know what life has in store for him, Ross emphasized.
“My friend, a paraplegic, was injured in a high-school accident. But he became a therapist, adopted kids, and he was able to work with computer companies to develop ways for disabled people to communicate,” Ross noted, adding that every person’s future is hard to predict and has promise.
Over the years, Hollywood filmmakers have entered this debate, with the release of Oscar-winning movies like 2004 Million Dollar Baby, which ended with a Catholic boxing coach, played by Clint Eastwood, helping a severely disabled female boxer commit suicide.
As in Million Dollar Baby, and now in Me Before You, assisted suicide is framed as a difficult choice that affirms personal dignity and autonomy. And though modern medicine has vastly improved the treatment of chronic pain and the related problem of depression, the promising breakthroughs are downplayed in both films.
In Me Before You, Will remains committed to his plan to end his life and reveals no interest in starting over with the help of his newfound love.
A Rolling Stone review summed up Will’s very limited character and backstory. “Will is an impossibly handsome London financier who was paralyzed two years ago, when a motorcycle accident ended a lifestyle that would have qualified him for the best season ever of The Bachelor.”
Strikingly, veteran Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers appeared content with this one-dimensional characterization and recommended the film to readers.
But A.O. Scott of The New York Times exhibited more perception in offering a sharply different view of the film.
Scott linked Me Before You to other fantasy films marketed to young women. The female lead “seduces, and is seduced by, a man who is rich, powerful and also helpless, in need of rescuing by the heroine even as she finds herself in his thrall.”
In the blockbuster movie Fifty Shades of Grey, Scott noted, a young woman “rescues” a wealthy man by participating in a sadomasochistic relationship. In exchange, she wins his heart and becomes his wife, gaining access to his fortune.
In Me Before You, Lou is also primed to rescue Will. Initially, she rejects his plan to end his life and believes her love will carry him through the hard times ahead.
Will sees things differently. “I loved my life,” he tells her, as if describing a Broadway lead he won’t give up for a lesser role. As other options are closed off, Lou “learns” she can only rescue her beloved by letting him go.
Me Before You’s message to teenage girls is simple: Assisted suicide can rescue a loved one from a fate worse than death. And even if you oppose this action on moral grounds, you must learn to honor and respect another’s choice to end his life.
Young viewers who look for deeper answers to the problem of human suffering, or the true meaning of friendship and compassion, will not find much here.
“Our culture tends to operate on an emotional and sentimental level, instead of acknowledging that some things are objectively good for people and other things objectively wrong,” observed Melissa Moschella, assistant professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America. “Behind all of this is the loss of the sense that we are here on this earth for a purpose. By accepting nobly and courageously the situations you are faced with, including suffering, you are fulfilling that purpose.”
“You can still love others and allow others to love you. But if you cut off your life prematurely, you also reject God’s plan for you, and who knows what you could have done that you didn’t?” Moschella told the Register.
God is absent from this Cinderella story, though many of the original European fairy tales affirmed inconvenient moral truths and fostered virtues like humility and courage. Today, those stories are needed more than ever to give hope to those who despair and to challenge the shallow narratives of our throwaway culture.
In contrast, Me Before You prepares viewers for the age of assisted suicide, an era shaped by a utilitarian ethos that weighs the costs and benefits of a person's productive value to society.
Girls watching the film may share Lou’s tears as she pleads with Will to change his mind. But the outcome to this disturbing tale also suggests that there is money to be made when a rich boyfriend takes his life. In such cases, Cinderella doesn’t get the prince; she secures a bit of his treasure.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott explained his own reaction to the film’s ending with brutal irony: “The conclusion might not really be sad at all. Lou gets a lot of money and a fresh croissant. So maybe … those tears were tears of joy.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.