The Right to Die

"Disability does not sideline or disqualify someone from living a full and active life. Everyone living with paralysis can live boldly." - The Reeve Foundation

"Me Before You" is a new summer movie, based on a novel, that opened last Friday. It made plenty of money, features some good performances, and will likely be one of the sleeper hits of summer. But it's also drawing plenty of controversy.


The plot centers on a young woman, Lou (Emilia Clarke), who is tasked with being a caretaker and companion for a quadriplegic man, Will (Sam Claflin). Lou soon discovers Will is miserable and has given his parents six months, after which he intends to go to Switzerland to a clinic that will help him end his life.

Lou is shocked and horrified by this decision. She decides to spend six months trying to convince Will to live. In the process they fall in love. She thinks she's succeeded, but he instead decides to end his life anyway.

I won't get into the specifics of this as a film, rather I'll review it on Thursday. But what I wanted to look at is the controversy. Many groups, including the Reeve Foundation quoted above, have called for a boycott of the film because of its depiction of the life of those afflicted with this injury. And they raise some good points.

I also think that it might be going a little far with the film. I didn't come away thinking it was a depiction of the experience of everyone with quadriplegia. I also didn't think the film made any definitive statements. It was about one man who struggled with pain but, more than that, struggled because he didn't want to be anything less than what he was. He wasn't willing to compromise, and that weighed heavily into his decision.

But this is a heady and difficult topic. It's been a part of the national dialogue for years. And, if anything, the greatest crime of "Me Before You" is that it touches on this difficult debate but doesn't really do justice to any arguments.

I couldn't help but think of "Million Dollar Baby," which won the Best Picture prize in 2005, and stirred the same kind of discussion through a much more compelling narrative.

The film focused on a fighter, Maggie (Hilary Swank), and her trainer, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). They developed a beautiful father-daughter relationship in and out of the ring. And when Maggie was injured, crippling her, it took a toll on them both.

As Maggie comes to terms with her physical condition and Dunn’s Hail Mary attempts to find a cure come up short, both struggle with what to do next. Maggie’s family proves to be of no help as she continues to waste away. Her only companion is Dunn, who dutifully sits by her side daily. When Maggie finally comes to terms with the fact the rest of her life will be severely limited, she asks her friend and father figure to help her go out on her own terms. Dunn instantly bristles at the idea, which conflicts with both his need to seek redemption by helping others and his faith. Dunn is a Catholic. It’s hard to say he’s incredibly devout, but he does cling to his faith as the only method of expressing his regret and desire to change. The Catholic Church is also a faith tradition that takes a hard line on the concept of suicide.

The way the argument is portrayed in "Million Dollar Baby" adds heft to the discussion. In "Me Before You," Lou's reasoning is never incredibly clear, and Will's suffering is only hinted at. The film is more interested in being a love story than taking a look at this incredibly difficult subject, which is probably what's drawn such intense criticism, even if it doesn't feel entirely earned.

But for most of the millions who flocked to see the movie, the debate about this topic is probably the furthest thing from their minds.


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