Ellen, the 20-year-old played by Lily Collins in To the Bone, is a former Anorexia Tumblr celeb. She's an artist whose drawings about her body issues — like the one we glimpse of a gaunt young woman standing nude on a scale — nabbed her a devoted niche following right up until one of those fans killed herself and sent Ellen the suicide note.
The trailer for To the Bone, the directorial debut of longtime TV writer-producer-creator Marti Noxon, drummed up some fierce advance debate about what it means to responsibly depict anorexia on the screen. But the film itself (which Netflix has added a trigger warning in front of) is far from oblivious about the way imagery can be used to fuel self-harm.
Rather, To the Bone engages with this imagery directly, via Ellen, who's intimately familiar with the rituals, totems, and habits of the community she's long been a part of. Ellen doesn’t just understand the rituals and totems that can accompany an eating disorder — she's cast herself as a kind of living, breathing thinspo stereotype, a girl who can calculate the calorie count of a plate of food at a glance, and who habitually circles her upper arm with her hand, as if to make sure her fingers can touch.
Ellen is pretty and white and emaciated — when she strips down for a weigh-in, you could count her ribs. She subs diet soda and cigarettes for meals, and her parents are well-off enough to afford the treatment programs she gets checked into, only to be quickly kicked out for her snarky comments to fellow patients. In her messy bun and her eyeliner, she's like a nightmarish minor rock star of malnutrition, less out of happiness than habit, because it's an identity. If there was a point in which she drew satisfaction from the attention she's gotten from fellow "rexies," to cite the cringeworthy term used by a fellow patient, it's long gone.
What remaining relationships she has left — her loving but frustrated younger half sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), and the father who never shows up onscreen — are brittle with strain. Her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), a woman with mental health issues in her past, loves her troubled daughter but retreated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), to give herself space.
Ellen lives in the garage, a college dropout consumed by her relationship with food, with her body, and with a revolving door of treatments. She's got nothing looming in her future except an ever-increasing likelihood of death. When Susan finagles her stepchild a place in a highly regarded inpatient program run by Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), it feels like a last chance.
Critics of the film are right in that Ellen is a terrible poster child for eating disorders. But then To the Bone is about, in part, how the whole concept of there being poster children for this struggle is a problem. In the movie, that's true both for those characters who look at Ellen as a fucked-up aspirational icon, and for viewers waiting for her character to gel into a textbook example of the "right" way to get better.
The idea that people (including one of the other patients at Threshold, Dr. Beckham's program) glamorize Ellen is portrayed as just as repellent as the parents who, blaming Ellen for their daughter's suicide, mailed her photos of the dead girl. "That lady said you're kind of famous," a younger fellow patient says when cornering Ellen in the bathroom, and Ellen's exasperation is as obvious as her inability to shed the constructed veneer of damaged cool.
To the Bone is much less interesting in its portrayal of treatment than it is in its spiky representation of Ellen's anorexia as a form of addiction. Netflix, which is streaming To the Bone, bought the movie at Sundance in January, and it features a lot of qualities, like quirk, that people have come to associate with the festival in ways that are not always complimentary. Its jokes are never too dark, its edges never too sharp, and its ending, while not exactly neat and easy, is comfortably hopeful. The half dozen other patients at Threshold, which is run out of a house in Los Angeles, reflect a continuing tendency for eating disorders to be portrayed as primarily the domain of young, privileged caucasity.
But not entirely — Kendra (Lindsey McDowell), at least, is neither white nor straight nor underweight; Megan (Leslie Bibb) is older and navigating an unexpected pregnancy; and Lucas (Alex Sharp) is a boy, a garrulous ballet dancer who had a breakdown after an injury. Lucas's flirtation with Ellen gives some spark to otherwise predictable interpatient bonding, interpatient infighting, and kind but tough speeches from Reeves.
His character, Dr. Beckham, is the kind of hip physician who swears, who's not afraid to shout slogans in public, and who takes his charges on a field trip to LACMA's Rain Room so they can sway while the music swells and revel in being alive. The sequence strains for a magic it never achieves in the same way Beckham strains to be more than a source of handsome encouragement.
It's nothing revolutionary, To the Bone. But whenever it shows its impatience with focusing on causes of anorexia and bulimia and beyond, rather than how to manage and recover from them, it feels personal and messily electric. The film acknowledges that there are many, many pressures that can lead someone to an eating disorder, while remaining alive with anger at the reductionism of drawing a direct line to any one of them.
When Ellen mocks a girl for complaining about the contradictory messaging from magazines — "Society's to blame! The world is so unfair! — she's being an undeniable bitch, and yet you can see why her resentment has built up. Throughout the film, others float the possibility that her eating disorder stems from a desire to look good, repressed lesbianism, her dad's neglect, her mom's mental breakdowns, as if a mention of the right reason would suddenly snap her back into health.
Ellen can't explain why she does what she does, but she is not immune to the promise that there's some quick solution to her pain either, waiting on Dr. Beckham to supply magic words that don't exist, and furious to learn that he has no fix for her beyond her needing to genuinely want to get better. That may not be the lesson everyone in her situation needs to learn, but it's clearly one that Noxon did.
Noxon drew from her own experiences with an eating disorder in making the film, and while the film isn't directly autobiographical, it's at its best when it feels specific — the story of one person's experiences rather than a broadside about eating disorders as an impossible whole. Ultimately the most resonant message To the Bone has to offer is that there is no one certain way to heal from anorexia, and no one right way to tell stories about it either.
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at email@example.com.
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