Me Before You, the newest edition to the "boy meets girl, tear-jerker" movie genre has earned mostly snarky reviews from critics, who find it a formulaic, manipulative and somewhat over-acted melodrama. The story of a down-on-her-luck, recently-axed tea shop worker, Louisa Clark, who is hired to cheer up Will Traynor, a rich hunk who has become a quadriplegic due to a freak accident, is based on JoJo Moyes' 2012 book of the same title. Will, intent on assisted suicide because he can never return to the full and active life he had as the successful, local great catch, confronts Lou, equally intent on stopping him. Some disability advocates have jumped on the critical bandwagon, railing at the portrayal of a quadriplegic as someone with a life not worth living. Others have taken sides, pro and con, on the issue of assisted suicide.
The film is thus a useful tool for demonstrating one's ability for film criticism, including the ability to sneer at soupy popcorn fare, as well as for advocates of social causes who see in it a vehicle for pushing their passion. Both find no trouble in seeing the film through the lens of their minds. Audiences have generally not been as judgmental. For many of them, it's a sweet, two-hankie story about love and loss. They see it, perhaps, through the lens of their hearts.
For me, the core of the film's contribution is neither love story nor social commentary. Me Before You is a morality tale about the transformative power of putting "you" before "me." Lou takes the job because she needs the money. Will is a vehicle for her need to support her family; her father is out of work. For Will, Lou is just the latest object for his anger about a life he finds devoid of hope and meaning. In time, her cheery disposition and love of life breaks through his shell - that and her decision to tell him he's being a bastard for treating her so poorly. In time, he challenges her to refuse accepting the self-definition of her own life as one without education, talents, or prospects. Their relationship develops as each penetrates the outer shell the other uses as protection from the pain that comes with living.
They gain as they give. Lou discovers she has a great skill in the ability to infuse life into someone who has lost the desire for it, putting aside the devastating loss she will suffer by falling in love with a man who wants to end it all. She also comes to believe in a future of possibilities that Will sees for her. Will finds that though confined to dependency, he has the talent to inject hope into someone who needs such a transfusion to transform her life. Lou and Will are thus reminders that what we give to another human being is the definition of the true value of our lives.
(Spoiler alert) In the end, Will carries through his decision to end his life. Lou, who at first leaves him because she cannot bear to watch him die, flees to his bedside, sacrificing her own need for emotional distance to his need for support in his last hours. His is a self-sacrifice as well; he cannot bear the thought of her having, with him, less of a life than he believes she deserves. In our current culture, with its emphasis on "me," the film thus offers homage to the transforming power of focusing outside ourselves.
The film is certainly sentimental. It's not that the critics are wrong, or that social advocates can't find in the movie some platform suitable for discussion. But to miss the attempt to find a deeper message shortchanges the value of art in helping us think about becoming our best selves. There is criticism and ideology enough in our lives. Sometimes there is value in putting both aside and seeing what can enter the space that they too often fill.