Eating disorders have often been treated with TV-movie-of-the-week triviality in the media.
From the death of Karen Carpenter, dramatized by Todd Haynes’ experimental short Superstar: The Death of Karen Carpenter (1987) and musicalized by Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” (1990), to television specials like 1981’s The Best Little Girl in the World and 1986’s Kate’s Secret, most have felt strangely trifling, addressing an issue without actually taking the time to probe it.
But 2017’s To the Bone, released as a Netflix original and written and directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) driving force Marti Noxon in her filmmaking debut, hopes to deal with such illnesses meaningfully. It specifically sheds light onto anorexia nervosa, focusing on a character nearing the bottom of her battle with the disease.
This is a film made with care. Where so many filmmakers have gone wrong as an effect of their being an arm’s length from the affliction, those involved with To the Bone have grappled with eating disorders head on. Noxon dealt with anorexia and bulimia in her youth, and so did leading actress Lily Collins, telling IndieWire in January that she saw the movie as a vehicle to get her past struggles off her chest and ultimately star in a feature to benefit the greater good. But as the press often does for the sake of a click-baiting story, the weeks leading up to To the Bone’s release have been thrown askew by headlines wondering aloud if the film glamorizes the very problem it’s examining.
Delve into these articles, though, and it’s concluded that, aside from the compulsively intriguing headlines, the movie does not. (Though Huffington Post contributor Vincent Fitzgerald believes the film does glamorize the interpersonal connection which can come with therapy, which is certainly a far reach.) In To the Bone do we have a direct, effective character study. It does not aim to definitively uncover the root cause as to why so many people starve themselves. Instead, its target is centered on giving a voice to those who have suffered in the past — and are currently suffering — and to providing understanding for outsiders looking in.
The film is not entirely successful, mostly because a half-baked romance is stirred into the drama (sometimes making it appear as though the issue at hand can be solved by the attaining of a significant other) and because there are a couple saccharine moments staged unconfidently. (Even Noxon seems to notice that one of the final scenes, in which the protagonist’s mother earnestly offers to “feed” her daughter like a baby, is slightly silly.)
But in lieu of its not always being handled proficiently, To the Bone remains both sensitive and important. We cannot judge the film for not always working too harshly, anyway, given how difficult the subject matter to convey without losing sight of realism.
It helps that the feature’s heroine is more than her illness. Twenty years old and named Ellen (Lily Collins), she suffers from anorexia but also has a keen sense of wit and is a talented, budding artist. We don’t know how long she’s had the disease. But the movie hints that it’s the result of guilt (her Tumblr blog, a viral hit, had a fan so taken aback by her images it led to their suicide) and the consistent turmoil of her home life, made harder by her flaky father’s inability to do much more than work.
When we’re first introduced to her, she’s being released from yet another treatment facility. Not because her psychological wounds have healed, but because her big mouth has been deemed a fire starter. Many fellow patients have worsened thanks to her unrelenting cynicism.
Her well-meaning albeit frequently thoughtless stepmother (Carrie Preston) unhappy with the idea of letting Ellen continue inching toward death without another stab at recovery, she takes it upon herself to seek the help of William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), a renowned specialist whose unconventional methods have been lauded by the psychiatric community.
This entails that Ellen live in a house with a handful of young women — and one young man — trying to recuperate from eating disorders themselves. Ellen is skeptical, particularly uneasy about Beckham’s no-bullshit policy. But the more she submits herself to life in the house and to developing relationships with the people around her, the closer she gets to accepting ideas of improvement.
A lot of that improvement is beckoned by Luke (Alex Sharp), the previously mentioned young man of the home. A dancer who began starving himself after a leg injury rendered him incapable of pursuing his life’s passion, Luke is larger than life (and the most stable of the group) and immediately pursues a friendship — and then a possible romance — with Ellen. (He feels as though he already knows her, given that he was a fan of her Tumblr before it was taken down.)
But the Ellen/Luke relationship is To the Bone’s most problematic point. Luke isn’t always charming: He’s annoyingly insistent, essentially pressuring Ellen into forming a bond with him. When she does submit, she seems happy with the development. But Noxon puts the film’s momentum on the back burner whenever Ellen and Luke are in the same room. In those moments, the movie becomes something of a plodding YA romance, even insinuating that Ellen can beat this sickness so long as she isn’t sleeping alone. This diminishes the film’s storyline, and is especially grating when Luke faces tragedy and self-reproach is layered atop the struggles Ellen is already facing.
But where To the Bone sometimes falters, Collins is faultless. Though her career has been rocky thus far, with performances in bad films that were bad themselves proliferating during her formative years, the last few months have fortunately proven that Collins is much more than her stunning face. With standout performances in relative misfire Rules Don’t Apply (2016) and the bona fide masterpiece Okja (2017), she’s suddenly become an actress to watch. And To the Bone solidifies the newfound excitement circling around her name.
Her Ellen is snide and sometimes flippant, but we’re acutely aware that she’s pessimistic and self-deprecating because she doesn’t want the world to think she’s hurting any more than she obviously is. Such isn’t always clear in the screenplay, and Collins is tasked with capturing those minuscule emotional quirks to amplify just how Ellen is feeling. Her anguish is palpable. We watch her deplete her progress without end, infuriated by how dependably this talented young woman can destroy herself. But Collins lets us understand that pain — Ellen is in an inescapable cycle of self-destruction, and she’s so far down the hole of her illness she’s not so sure can pull off a great escape.
A semi-happy ending does eventually arrive, but To the Bone is first and foremost a slice of life cum call to arms. Very few films have gone where this one has. And it shouldn’t be that way. For so long have eating disorders been passed along as a taboo, diseases to be suffered by teenage girls whose self-absorption has peaked. But they’re a national health crisis, and thoughtful media coverage is vital in destigmatization. Noxon and Collins can help lead the way.