It begins with tragedy, and weaves its way quickly into a well-written, even more well-acted love story, full of humor and bright hope. A young man, Will, extremely wealthy and a bit of an adrenaline junkie, suffers a life-altering injury. But when his family hires Louisa, a quirky young woman to care for him, her optimism and insistent pursuit of genuine connection with him results in laughter and memory-making: dawning joy in the life of one who’s apparently lost hope. She comes to love him, and self-sacrifice becomes a welcomed part of her every day; she relentlessly works in and with and despite the difficulties caused by Will’s paralysis, finding personal joy in bringing it to him. In return, the icy wall of isolation around him appears to melt, and he brings her new experiences both intellectual and artistic, enriching her world as well.
Will, though, we discover, has made an “informed” decision well before Louisa’s life-giving love enters the picture, and although he has “blessed” his family with six months to come to terms with his decision, he plans an assisted suicide. As the movie takes a hard turn, we discover that in the name of love, his committed caregiver-turned-true-love is being asked to let go of her desires and expectations, accept his decision, and move on.
At the end of the movie, as I could sense the direction it was taking, I felt first a lump in my throat, then a sharp sense of betrayal, and finally, gripping the armrests to keep myself planted in my seat, only for the sake of not embarrassing my fellow movie-goers, I experienced anger and felt nothing less than manipulated. I had a dawning certainty that this team of artists had created one more production with the message that ultimately, life is meaningless if it does not meet our shallow, short-term or even deep, long-term expectations. Furthermore, if we lose hope in the midst of that temporary difficulty we have not only the right, but the responsibility, to participate in ending it when we deem it all hopeless.
Admittedly, the movie (and I will assume, the author of the original book), did a fabulous job of creating characters who were likeable and genuine. The suffering of the paralyzed young male lead is not overplayed, and the sunny optimism of his beautiful caregiver is inspiring. I found myself with tears streaming as Louisa curled at the foot of Will’s bed, exhausted after a day of watching over a suffering friend, and glad to give of herself. When the two share a kiss, I held my breath of the beauty of a gentle physical expression of a commitment that has been months, and moments, in the making.
However, the assumption that “true love” means not just accepting, but also aiding another in devaluing his or her own life, assisting in self-inflicted murder, and glibly moving on, is at the least offensive and at its worst, damaging to unsuspecting young audiences to this promoted “romance;” spoiler alert – this is where the movie is headed.
There are three elements I want to address in this story for the sake of discussion. First, the life of a person who is unable to accomplish all of its former feats is devalued, both by himself and ultimately, by those who claim to love him. Throughout the movie we see hints at the struggle for physical well-being that is an everyday one for Will and his caregivers. Everyday tasks are difficult, and adventures outside his home even more so. (Although, ironically, Will, unlike many who suffer such injuries, has apparent access to any luxury he could ask, making his life aeons easier than some in his situation.) We know that he suffers a weakened immune system and ongoing pain. Forget the fact that he is apparently smart and witty, and fully able to immerse himself in relationship. Life is hard for him, so it’s ultimately worthless. That’s the message we’re sold. I bristle at the the thought of such a devaluing of human life. I think of my friends Mike and Dana, who have a beautiful romance and an influential life, loving deeply through marriage and paralysis, never shying from honesty about the hardships, but always offering hope to others through their commitment to the hard work that is the definition of love. To say that Mike’s life wasn’t worth living, or their marriage wasn’t worth fighting for, is an ignorant offense. Powerfully written words from an eleven-year-old professional wheelchair athlete further cement the offensiveness of this assertion. At the end of her “letter to Hollywood,” Ella Frech says “…while you were thinking that living with a wheelchair would make you want to kill yourselves, I was busy becoming a pro skater, and learning how to do drop ins, wheelies, and ride the rail at the skate park.”
Second, love is equated with sex. In several places, the characters refer to sex as either a casual encounter to be joked about, or alternatively as an expected and necessary component of a (non-married) romance. God designed sex to be a powerful expression of love, and it reflects many aspects of His relationship to His people, within the context of marriage between one man and one woman. But sex is not the end-all, nor the central focus, nor the most important part of marriage. To assert, as this movie does, that a relationship (potentially) without it is not worth pursuing, is to minimize a thousand other aspects of love that are illustrated in countless minutes, hours, days and years in a marriage built on honor, integrity, hard work and beautiful, powerful life experiences.
Third, and perhaps most ridiculously, self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) death, is painted, literally, in white and light and the rosy glow of a sunset, in a setting of white linens and lovely furnishings, as an evening breeze blows through open windows, and loved ones gaze on. Regardless of what you may believe about the afterlife (and dear one, let’s talk on this if you’re not sure…), death is not pretty. It is messy, it is pain-filled, and it is inelegant. It is so utterly the opposite of this scene, even at its most peaceful, that it is laughable. If realizing this isn’t enough, watching Louisa later glibly sip her coffee at a Parisian cafe, demurely smiling as she reads how her love’s suicide provided funds for her to adventure and “be free,” as if his money was worth more in his death than their shared joy in life, is the most degrading and frankly, idiotic statement I have seen in a movie. Forget the fact that Will could have blessed her with adventures untold while living life alongside her. Forget the fact that his hopelessness probably signals that Will will spend eternity in suffering. (For if you know Christ, you know that with Him all things are possible, and apart from Him is sure hopelessness and eternal death. I’m happy to share more on this for those who don’t know…) In Louisa’s easy acceptance, we somehow are expected to overlook the utter selfishness of his act of desertion in favor of his imagined escape of temporary suffering and hardship, and possibly even swallow this as some misplaced example of heroism.
I found myself fighting every urge in my brain to stand and shout to the dark theatre, “Don’t you see how STUPID this is? This is NOT LOVE!!!” Love stays. Love fights. Love enters into hardship and walks alongside, it moves past temporary and so-called-satisfaction of flesh, and gives of self. It says life is worth fighting for, and I will fight for you and with you. As the lights rose in the room, shaking, I turned to my daughter and she could see the anger in my eyes, the frustration at the lies so beautifully told. “Fifty bucks says you write a blog post, momma.” Baby-girl, a late night of deep discussion later, and a morning before you’re awake, you’re on. It had to be said.