Director: Marti Noxon
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lily Collins
Watch To the Bone online in the UK: Netflix UK
“That lady says you’re kind of famous,” says a young woman to Ellen (Collins) at the start of To the Bone. Both are hoping to become patients at the clinic of Dr. Beckham (Reeves), where he helps to treat people with eating disorders. It could be taken as a nod to the fact that Ellen is played by young star Lily Collins, who is no stranger to the red carpet after roles in such films as Mirror Mirror, and that intentional nod is only the tip of the iceberg.
Released this weekend by Netflix, after snapping it up at Sundance earlier this year, the movie has already come under heavy criticism for glamorising eating disorders. There’s certainly a Sundance quality to it, as it combines the indie festival’s usual taste for quirky side characters, offbeat humour, insightful life lessons and a vaguely optimistic ending. The other people in Beckham’s clinic include a ballet dancer with an injury (Alex Sharp), who also acts as the poshly-spoken love interest, and Megan (Leslie Bibb), who’s pregnant. Both have more complexity to them than you might expect, but there is still a whiff of cliche to the gang, as if One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest were remade for E4. (The phase “Calorie Asperger’s” is coined to mock each other’s habit for calorie counting.)
The cast, though, do well to battle the brief time the script gives to the supporting characters. Even Keanu Reeves manages to bring some actual cool to the shallow part of Hip Professor 101, who you can tell is a genius because he likes to swear, yell in public and helps Ellen change her name to ‘Eli’.
Potentially more problematic are its shots of Ellen’s body, as we glimpse her ribcage and her emaciated spine – details that are shocking and sensitively portrayed by director Marti Noxon, but could still act as triggers for anyone watching with an eating disorder, the kind of image that could lead to people comparing their own size and weight to hers.
But Noxon, who based the screenplay on her own experiences, is far from oblivious to such problems: Ellen, we learn, is an artist. While her overbearing step-mother (Carrie Preston) is all-too-assertive that she is a gifted celebrity, Ellen has found a following on Tumblr with her drawings – drawings that not only won her a fan in that waiting room near the start, but also inspired Sharp’s would-be boyfriend. There’s candid bravery to the way the movie explores such complex ideas of aspiration and influence, the way it acknowledges not just the taboo subject of eating disorders in itself, but dares to dig into the nuances of the condition.
Collins’ performance is dedicated and moving throughout, and that awareness goes with it. If there’s any risk of her persona of a troubled artist coming across as cool to young onlookers, the film is as much about deconstructing that facade, calling out the way that others look up to her, questioning the way she tells herself everything is under control. Most of all, her Ellen is horribly, believably tired, after a long time without eating – and the film captures the pain of her struggle to remember why eating, and staying alive, matters. (One sequence in Random International’s Rain Room, which was in London’s Barbican in 2013, is an inspired use of powerfully simple images on a low budget.)
Collins still manages to bring out humour in such a sad situation, without making things too light-hearted. Indeed, there’s a clear intent to engage with anorexia in a way that’s more than just about the condition and is more than one-note. That effort doesn’t always work, partly because it avoids too many specifics on eating disorders themselves (possibly an attempt to avoid providing unintentional tips), and partly because of the conventional elements found in Ellen’s family drama (one therapy session ticks all the boxes of potential disputes, from lesbians to new-age methods of treatment). One moment of reconciliation between Eli and her mum (Lili Taylor) perhaps stretches too far for pathos, yet there’s a bizarre uniqueness in their reunion – just as To the Bone moves against the idea of having a poster girl for all those with anorexia, it also fiercely debunks the notion that there is one universal cause or cure (each patient we see has their own combination of factors to face). It’s not just a case of media images or thin celebrities. Like the difficulty of portraying anorexia on screen, it’s more complicated than that. This is the tip of a iceberg – and with eating disorders so rarely seen in movies, To the Bone is a welcome, emotional and challenging invitation to discuss that iceberg openly.
If you are affected by an eating disorder, you can call BEAT for free support and advice on 0808 801 0711 from 3pm to 10pm daily.
To the Bone is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
Amends: This review incorrectly referred to Lily Collins as starring in Cinderella, instead of Mirror Mirror. The article has now been updated to reflect that fact.