Thursday, April 23, 2015

Movie Review: You're Not You

I was asked to review You're Not You yesterday by a friend, who said they would "love to have [me] pick it to pieces."  Well, friend, your wish is my command.

This movie had several good things going for it, and I'll start with those.  First, in the credits, there was an ALS consultant listed, which is so great, and is something sorely lacking in a lot of media featuring disabled characters.  Likely because this consultant on set, the movie was able to portray a realistic progression of ALS symptoms in Kate.  It touched on the very real and dangerous subtle ways disabled people can be mistreated by their caregivers (which we see with Kate's husband.)  I liked that Kate spoke for herself and advocated for what she needed, and I liked that the blatantly ableist moments in the film (mostly with the husband taking action concerning Kate without asking her permission) were, for the most part, shown to be wrong.  Even the awkward moment when Bec's father is repeatedly asking Kate for clarification of her speech when Bec is busy.  I could tell by the way it was portrayed that it was meant to be viewed as rude and awkward.  It was awkward, but asking for clarification when you don't understand someone is ultimately a sign of respect.  You're not ignoring us and you're not assuming you know what we're saying.  So, I really liked that scene, too.

One of my favorite positive aspects from the movie was the allusion to the title.  At first, I was put off by it.  I read it as some dehumanizing take on what disability or terminal illness does to a person - making them less themselves.  But I was happy to be wrong.  I loved the scene where the reason for the title was made clear, when Bec (the new caregiver) is interpreting for Kate, and begins taking her own liberties with what she does or does not interpret.  Kate interjects and says, "You're not you.  You're me," which really emphasizes the importance of interpreting correctly, as well as the importance of not speaking for a disabled person, but letting us speak for ourselves.  That scene really gave a needed window into what Kate was thinking and feeling and what the process of living with ALS was like for her.  The final aspect I really enjoyed (while not disability related) was the strong female friendship between Kate and Bec (and also Kate and Marilyn) that was displayed on screen.  It's rare that we see those in media of any sort, and I appreciated seeing those aspects.

As far as the negative aspects, there were many, unfortunately.  First and foremost, the character of Kate is portrayed by an able-bodied actor (Hilary Swank).  The movie was also, clearly from the perspective of Bec, the new caregiver, and not Kate herself.  This has the instant effect of "othering" Kate.  There were a couple of moments when Bec pushed Kate's chair when Kate clearly said not to, and in those moments, I believe it's shown to be a good thing.  As if, in these moments, Bec knows better than Kate what she needs.  In fact, Kate's word should have been honored.  Even the moment of positively framing the adaptive equipment comes from Bec driving the electric wheelchair (which is actually super hard to do, I've heard) seamlessly up to Kate and telling her how good it is for her.

The movie perpetuated some really damaging beliefs/storylines/stereotypes.  The scene on the stairs was horrifying, as was the reveal that it was not accidental.  Kate was so wracked with guilt over what her disability was doing to her husband that she felt taking a header down the stairs was a suitable answer?  We don't need anymore "I'd rather be dead than be disabled"/"No one can love me because I'm disabled" nonsense going on.  It is so damaging.  Yes, there are some people who believe this, even some disabled people.  However, when these aspects are the only ones you see, you think that is the entire picture.  Really, it's one small piece.  There are disabled people (myself included) who are super glad to be alive, who know we are worthy of love and respect.  The movie did show a good portion of Kate's day to day life, but it was all leading up to the moment of her death.  I want to see a movie about disabled people living that does not end with them dying to teach an able bodied person a lesson.

I don't count the death itself as a negative, but the way it's framed almost feels to me like another version of the "better off" stereotype, wherein Kate's legacy is shown to have more value than her actual life does.  And again, it was all depicted as a positive thing because we are seeing it through Bec's lens.  Kate's death gives Bec the push she needs to write music and sing on stage, which is exactly what inspiration porn is.  We, disabled people, are shown to only have a surface value - not as our own human selves, but as how we effect and/or "inspire" able bodied people  It's a way to objectify us, and reduce us.  Our lives do not have value because seeing us makes you feel better about yourself.  Our lives have value because they're our lives.

The book (which the movie is based on) does seem more comprehensive than the movie, and the author, Michelle Wildgen, seems to have a basic grasp of some of the harmful beliefs surrounding disabled people and the way we're portrayed in media, which is encouraging.  I haven't read the book (beyond skimming the first chapter online) so this commentary is about the movie only, which I did see in its entirety.