Is Me Before You Based On Romance Or Reality?

Image: Warner Bros.
Once upon a time in Los Angeles, I found myself in a yelling match with my then-boyfriend, who had been asked to buy peanut butter at the grocery store and returned home with none. At the peak of this fight, which like most productive arguments, found its root deep below the surface, it was suggested that I am not a particularly romantic person — that I prefer well-executed grocery runs to typewritten poems and completed chore charts to sweeping gestures.

He was not wrong. While I can get down with a surprise candlelit dinner every so often, what really touches me is when I am not the first person to realize it's time to sweep the floors and gets out the broom. That's one reason I don't generally go in for a silver-screen love story: Those narratives tend to leave off where the IRL work of a relationship begins — both on an emotional and daily to-do level — painting an incomplete picture of what it means for two people to really support one another and find day-to-day satisfaction.

So, with that in mind, I confess: I was not super excited to spend two hours in a darkened screening room, immersed in the tragic romance of the summer, Me Before You. If you have somehow escaped knowing anything about this best-selling book turned blockbuster and want to keep it that way, fair warning: Spoilers ahead. For the rest of you reading, here's the abbreviated version of events:

When an unemployed English girl secures a job caring for a handsome quadriplegic, the last thing either of them expect to find is love. Predictably enough, once he is charmed by her quirkiness and stamina and she comes to realize her care for him extends far beyond professional boundaries, they discover true happiness in one another's company.

Falling in love happens while you take care to make life a little easier for someone else, not because you have to, but because you want to.

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But then the story takes a unique turn. Louisa "Lou" Clark (played by the charming Emilia Clarke) realizes that Will Traynor (portrayed with touching depth and nuance by Sam Claflin) intends to end his life via legal assisted suicide and decides to do everything in her power to give him reason enough to reconsider. In the film, ever-sunny Lou is certain that she can help Will discover that — even in a wheelchair, mostly paralyzed from the neck down — it's possible to find amusement, and even joy, in this new version of existence. Along with the help of Will's nurse and physical therapist (Steve Peacocke), she takes him to the horse races, to a concert, to a beautiful beach getaway where they share their first kiss one night during a tropical rainstorm. It is as sweet and lovely as a budding affair can be.

Except that, for Will, it doesn't change the practical facts of his situation: namely, that he is bound to his chair, and always will be, for as long as they both shall live. He has fallen for Lou — and he's been swept up in the amorousness of it all. But that doesn't change his mind about wanting to live; nor does it lead to him taking the predictable plot path of manipulating her to leave him for her own good. Will is far more honest and noble than that. Instead, he compels her to see the practical reality of his situation — to respect what he has decided for himself and to be brave enough to say goodbye.

It's not revelatory to say that this story is a bit of a bait-and-switch. You think you're getting a romance movie à la The Notebook, but about halfway through, you discover you're being pitched on death with dignity, as well as a relatively uncharted type of love and acceptance. But the truth is that Me Before You is extraordinary in that it evolves romance into something that so seldom gets dealt with on the big screen: the question of how to love someone who is in pain; how to care for someone whose body has become their own nightmare; how to focus on the now, knowing exactly where it leads; and how to support a beloved's decision to say goodbye, on their own terms.

Those are some of the most heartbreaking questions you could ever be asked to answer in a relationship. But they are deeply important ones: more important than butterflies, getaways, and mind-blowing sex, more important than grand romantic gestures. They are rooted in the practical realities of how you want to live everyday life, alone and with a partner. That's what makes Me Before You powerful: It shines a light on a part of loving someone that is hard to look at.

None of this is to say that it's a perfect film — it's not. Though the acting is stellar across the board, it does get into some campy territory, particularly in light of Ms. Clarke's wardrobe, which falls somewhere between Ms. Frizzle and Lisa Frank. The movie itself runs a little on the long side and the emotional gravity suddenly peaks, rather than slowly building.

For all its faults, though, Me Before You gets one major thing right: Falling in love happens while you take care to make life a little easier for someone else, not because you have to, but because you want to. In the end, tending to those practical, everyday matters is its own kind of epic romance. Fluffing pillows — remembering to pick up peanut butter — might not always look like much. But in their own way, those little things can add up to a really beautiful love story.

This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called
Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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