Spoilers up ahead! (Plus trigger warning for eating disorders and family neglect.)
After we saw the trailer for Netflix’s new film To the Bone, Viki and I were a bit divided on whether we liked it and if it was going to be worth watching. I enjoyed it but thought that Keanu Reeves was probably the weakest part of the trailer. Viki thought it looked rather uninventive and she didn’t like what the trailer seemed to imply, namely that a romantic relationship would be the magic cure for eating disorders. And don’t scoff, we have been at a point where movies and tv shows portrayed EDs and recovery exactly like that.
Fortunately, To the Bone was nothing like that. I was pleasantly (or as pleasant as a story about anorexia can be) surprised by this movie, its cast and especially how it portrayed EDs and the various struggles that come with them. This is one particularly commendable aspect of the film: it not only shows the physical and emotional implication of anorexia but also how much it influences interpersonal relationships and daily habits.
Lily Collins is one of my favorite actresses and one of my favorite people in Hollywood. Since she, herself, has a history of dealing with eating disorders, she was able to deliver a convincing and, most of all, captivating performance as Ellen (and later Eli), a 20-year old patient at a group home for people struggling with various eating disorders. She has been in and out of a variety of treatment centers for quite some time but her physical progress (i.e. her weight) has been fluctuating. And so has her mental progress. Especially dealing with her family is shown to be incredibly difficult. Yes, there are situations in which this is made rather obvious, e.g. the family therapy session or the constant bickering and gossiping between Ellen’s parents/step-parents. But even more heartbreaking are the subtle moments, those that you have to look at more carefully so you don’t miss them, where lack of support is shown. One of those are the meals at Ellen’s dad’s house. Her step-sister aids Ellen in focusing all her attention on the food and how many calories each item on her plate has and then gives Ellen a lot of time and freedom to play around with her food and re-arrange it unnoticed because nobody is watching her eating habits as they should. And her step-mother even takes the plate away before Ellen has had time to finish her portion (not in the same scene, but still).
Those little moments are what make this film and it’s storytelling so authentic. It shows many of the tricks and hidden but very calculated habits of people dealing with EDs. As an audience member, you can clearly see that Collins as well as the director Marti Noxon have personal experience with this topic.
Even Keanu Reeves, who seemed like a completely stereotypical ‘unconventional but deep down actually caring doctor’ in the trailer, was a good and fitting addition to the cast. I wasn’t blown away by his performance but I don’t have anything generally negative to say about it either.
I do have a lot to say about the films love interest, though. Luke, played by Alex Sharp, is a young ex-ballet dancer who injured his knee and developed an eating disorder as a result. Even though he is closer to recovery than the other patients, it is a big step towards an authentic portrayal of anorexia to show a man struggling with it. Anorexia and bulimia are usually depicted as women-only issues. And while it is true that young women are the group affected the most (men make up only about 10% of anorexia sufferers), the decision to include a male patient did not seem forced or gratuitous. Plus Luke is a largely likable character, so that helped. I can see how someone may want to criticize the relationship between Luke and Eli but it really did not bother me how it developed and how it was implied that, in some form, be it romantic or platonic, it will continue to develop.
To the Bone features many familiar faces, like Ciara Bravo, Leslie Bibb and Kathryn Prescott. It was a lovely experience to see that neither the actors for the main characters nor the ones for side characters felt like they had only been cast to make money or to generate buzz for this Sundance movie.
One thing that really bothered me – but was ultimately not too big of a deal – were the two unfittingly artistic scenes. The first was the group-home excursion to a museum (I guess) where they danced and moved around in a room in which it rained. The characters were mostly only shown as silhouettes and I generally found it to be more of a music-video atmosphere than part of the movie. It really did take me out of the plot and I while I think it made the story more realistic to show the patients outside of the house and in a different environment, I think this scene was not the best way to do so. The second one was the near-death dream at the end. It felt very on-the-nose and implied that Eli was able to overcome her inner hurdles by simply recognizing how close she was to dying. And that, to me, seemed like an easy way out.
The only other moment when I though the writing could be vastly improved was when Meghan lost her child. Because even when the caretaker expects such an outcome, it still does not suffice to calm the patient down and send everyone else back to bed. Meghan should have been brought to the hospital immediately and with a lot more urgency than was shown in that scene. However, generally, I liked that the film barely touched upon the other patients’ issues and journeys. Because EDs are a deeply personal topic and it was Eli’s story and she would have had too much going on in her own mind to actually explore and develop a deeper understanding for the other patients (especially since she only knew them for a few short weeks – after the ending she might build friendships. But we don’t get to see that).
After the trailer was released, many critics claimed that this movie would glorify anorexia. Which is bullshit. What makes it so different from other films discussing this topic is the approach. It doesn’t show too much of the physical aspects. It mentions the body’s reaction to starvation (such as developing fuzzy arm hair and, for women, losing one’s period) and it touches upon the most extreme consequences (like fainting). But the main focus of this film is the mental and emotional side of such a terrifying disorder. And that is something that makes this movie special, in my book – the portrayal of anorexia as what it is: a mental disorder. Sadness, frustration, isolation, defiance, fear, anger, loneliness, all of these emotions and a million more are so central and so realistic in To the Bone‘s story – down to the mention and depiction of ‘thinspiration’ – that watching can almost feel like a punch in the heart. I had to pause and take a break twice to get through it.
So, obviously, if you are triggered by stories about eating disorders or family neglect, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this movie to you. If you are able to handle such films, however, I do believe you should watch it as soon as possible. It is a remarkable film and even the ending struck a perfect balance between hopeful but not sappy.
It is an 8/10 from me.
And Lily Collins, she’s still a 10/10 when it comes to talent and I hope she recovers (or has recovered) quickly form this strenuous role.