A laudable, affecting piece of drama that could prove useful for any viewer struggling at the moment, whether with an eating disorder or any other mental health issue.
Films about struggling with some form of mental illness can be difficult to execute, because the typical Hollywood instincts for what constitutes a satisfying character arc tend to do a disservice to the messy, laborious and rarely three act friendly journey to real life wellness. Drawn from her own experiences battling an eating disorder, former Buffy writer/producer Marti Noxon’s directorial debut To the Bone sidesteps this problem by not seeking out a storybook happy ending. Instead, Noxon chooses to document a chapter in her protagonist’s road to betterment, creating a captivating framework to explore the psychology behind anorexia, bulimia and other EDs from a place of brutal honesty.
This isn’t clear from the outset, though. For the first few scenes, there’s cause for concern that To the Bone is going to be one of those interminable films that tries to mask difficult subject matter with a hipper-than-thou sense of detachment. Ellen, the young woman played by Lily Collins, faces the world with such a thick veneer of eye rolling dissatisfaction that the film takes on the same sharp tongued, irritating tone. Her sharp personality makes the film curl around her like a security blanket. But this cloying, clever aura is a smart bit of misdirection. Noxon introduces us to Ellen and lets us see her as she presents herself, too cool for school and utterly in control.
Control is the key. Ellen herself loves to say she’s got it all under control, with her encyclopedic knowledge of calorie counts and her obsessive rituals of bedtime curl ups and maintaining 100% purview on maintaining her wisp of a figure. Her initial introduction on the last day of an in-patient therapy stay plays like the entirety of Girl, Interrupted distilled to the digestible size of a tweet. It’s only after we see her interact with her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) and stepsister Kelly (Liana Liberato) that we begin to see cracks in the narrative she clings to. The thrust of the film concerns her working with Dr. Beckham, a no-nonsense practitioner ably portrayed by Keanu Reeves. Beckham has her in a new in-patient program where she shares a house with five other women and a particularly twee young British man, where the film’s somewhat cutesy tone rears its head again.
However, Beckham’s methods call for an attempt at family therapy, where Ellen has to share a room with Susan and Kelly, as well as her biological mother Judy (Lili Taylor) and her girlfriend Olive (Brooke Smith). Up until this point, the family dynamics behind Ellen’s backstory feel pretty rote; her father is always busy with work and her stepmother is almost comically clueless, while she just seems to want to go back to live with her mom who supposedly gets her. The therapy session crumbles those preconceptions, subverting audience expectations and proving that even her queer, artsy matriarch sees her as more of a problem to be solved than a person. The progression of understanding Ellen moves for the audience at the same pace of her beginning to understand herself.
While the movie isn’t afraid to show the nitty gritty of eating disorder culture, it doesn’t dwell heavily on the saddo porn aesthetic. There’s some discomfiting, potentially triggering imagery, but it all serves the dramatic whole rather than fetishizing the trauma. This stylistic choice is particularly welcome, given the mid film twist about Ellen and the aftereffects of the art she’s been making for years. There’s half an attempt at a love story between Ellen and Luke (Alex Sharp), the lone male at Beckham’s program, but it serves Ellen’s arc more than the usual injection of unnecessary romance.
To the Bone doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it’s a laudable, affecting piece of drama that finds the right way to say some powerful things that could prove useful for any viewer struggling at the moment, whether with an eating disorder or any other mental health issue. Now, that “right way” is largely by holding its protagonist accountable and forcing her (and in turn, the audience) to accept some hard truths. It also helps to have Keanu fucking Reeves providing those difficult maxims in his trademark, soothing tone. In the end, we never see Ellen get some recognizable happy ending, but we see her decide that maybe she deserves one, and that’s a good start.