To the Bone [2017] – A Compelling Unromanticized Portrayal of Eating Disorder

Anorexia is one of the persistently misunderstood and glamorized disorders. The ravages of this particular condition is often belittled or stereotyped in the worst possible manner. The glamorizing comes from using the term for eating disorder to all thin people which further equates it to physical agility and fitness. Then there’s the common stereotype of perceiving that eating disorders are only confined to the demographic of young wealthy Caucasian female. Part of the reason for this misrepresentation is because eating disorders don’t make any sense to most of us (though it’s an issue rampant in America, found among different ethnic groups. The approximate no. goes as high as 30 million).  The good thing about television writer Marti Noxon’s directorial debut To the Bone (2017) is that it dismisses the false beliefs related to the eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia), before forging down the subdued narrative path to make an palpably optimistic movie. The script is loosely based on Noxon’s own experience during the 1980s whose first-hand knowledge of the disorder brings out unbridled empathy on the central character Ellen, assimilated by Lilly Collins – a truly haunting & career-best performance. Lilly has shown real compassion for the character as she has also talked about her own struggle with eating disorders.

Nevertheless, questions and alarms were raised about the actress, who suffered from eating disorder, starving off to play the central character (some medical professionals related it to ‘an actor with a history of serious drug abuse getting high repeatedly for a film role’). The trailer of the film did give off the feeling that it’s yet another ‘disease of the season’ movie. It set off controversies, including a ‘’ petition demanding the streaming giant Netflix to withdraw the film from public domain (Netflix bought the film for 8 million dollars after its acclaimed Sundance debut) for 'aggravating the stigma surrounding eating disorders’. Moreover, the lead character Ellen is a very rich young white female (so much for breaking the myths of anorexia!). Yet, the film is mostly opposite to the misgivings derived from the trailer or other editorial sources. While Marti Noxon’s protagonist hails from a background that confirms to typical personification of the disorder, Collins’ Ellen is a well-rounded character who truly serves as the doorway to make us comprehend emotional and physical turmoil of anorexics. In addition, Noxon leavens the narrative with warmth and humor without affecting its ring of unsettling truth.

‘To the Bone’ opens with an apt warning sign, since the film was deemed harmful enough to trigger painful memories for people with eating disorders. However, the film opens on a light-hearted note in a residential center to realize Ellen’s mercurial, frustratingly stubborn character nature. The scarily bony 20 year old Los Angeles girl with a penchant for art isn’t willing to admit that her eating disorder isn’t under control. For years, she has been in and out of residential centers and at times force fed through tube. Ellen can immediately come up with caloric information of any food. She frenetically does sit-ups in bed and floor, convinced that the meal will put her in the path towards obesity. As a result, there are bruises on her fragile back. At one point, Noxon scrutinizes Ellen’s physical features which are so distressing: bones stick out at different angles and hair grows in unusual places. We are informed that Ellen’s heading toward rock bottom that soon her body, running out of fat, will begin to digest muscle.

Ellen lives with her adorable half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), well-meaning chatterbox stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) and an apathetic, unseen father. Ellen’s very sensitive and bit self-centered mother Judy (Lilli Taylor) has gone off to stay with her partner Olive (Brooke Smith). Ellen’s relationship with her family members is elegantly realized in these earlier sequences. Much of the conversation between them lingers around their bafflement for Ellen’s eating disorder. Susan truly wants to help Ellen, but she doesn’t know how, except for gleefully carrying a large cake with words ‘Eat up Ellen!’ The comic curiosity of the family members was, thankfully, not exaggerated for mere laughs. They are part of the society that equates anorexia with vanity and obstinacy. Yet, they somewhat demonstrate an empathetic will (especially Kelly) to help Ellen overcome her afflictions. Eventually, due to Susan’s determined stance Ellen agrees to check into a new unconventional treatment facility, under the care of renowned doctor William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). There’s considerable diversity in the depiction of people living in the house and among them Ellen gets real close to a charming ex-ballet dancer Luke (Alex Sharp). When subsequently the situation unearths fresh problems and dilemmas, the emotions surging to the surface are carefully handled.

To the Bone’s story line does place itself in the melodramatic young adult territory which may ultimately diffuse bland, life-affirming messages. Apart from the sarcastic opening scene and few later exchanges, the film side-steps such cliched thinking and instills a humane perspective on an oft-misunderstood disorder. There’s nothing formally fascinating about Marti Noxon’s style. But she deftly maintains the unsettling as well as mildly optimistic tone throughout the start to finish. Her direction of actors is pitch-perfect. And, except for the ‘big’ emotional scene when Ellen’s mom feeds her with a baby bottle (which is taken from the director’s personal life) Noxon doesn’t unnecessarily move the camera to contrive heightened dramatic effects. Writing is sound for the most part. The early casual lunch conversation between Ellen and Kelly plus the later bickering in family therapy session were efficiently written. The dialogues at few occasions desperately try to be quote-worthy, but there are also some clever exchanges. For example, when Susan leaves Ellen in the treatment home, she says ‘be good’ and after a little gap, she continues ‘not perfect, not too good’. It’s a good little line which indicates how some part of the eating disorder could be associated with destructive social pressure due to health and beauty concerns. Yet for all the solid nature of writing, one of its considerable flaw is the underdeveloped or one-dimensional characterization of the people at the treatment home. The emotional problems and the physical ailments the minor characters face differs and they are shown to have hailed from diverse background. Yet, they are written to be types or happen to be mere devices (except Luke) for moving forward the narrative (Short Term 12 – a different kind of Group Home movie was more profound and empathetic in handling the supporting characters).  

Despite the conventional framing and pacing, director Noxon’s treatment on a couple of aspects is really commendable. One is the characterization of Dr. Beckham. Played by Keanu Reeves, the character does seem to take Robin Williams’ (Goodwill Hunting) path providing pat messages. He looks like the perfect male savior or the caring father figure for the diseased young female. Similar line of thoughts goes for Ellen’s burgeoning friendship/romance with tender Luke (it’s a strange relationship which doesn’t mask their uncertainty and awkwardness). These characters aren’t treated as the givers of meaning to otherwise pessimistic thought-process of Ellen. The change, as the final brilliant dream sequence indicates, is possible only after scrutinizing her own vulnerability and by demonstrating compassion for herself. The revelation arrives at the point Ellen truly realizes her unhealthiness (seeing her own mangled self). Marti Noxon understands that there are no sunshine-and-rainbows ending for this kind of tale. It’s just a constant struggle whose pain may be assuaged by half-sister or Luke or Dr. Beckham, but the possibility of recovery solely rests with herself. This conviction is what makes To the Bone an honest and unsparing work, placing it alongside other good addiction or disorder recovery films. 



To the Bone (107 minutes) delivers an unflinching yet humane perspective on the oft-pigeonholed eating disorder. Despite few missteps and conventional narrative set-up, film-maker Marti Noxon intends to spark a meaningful conversation on the matter rather than opt for strict Hollywoodization. 

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