Marti Noxon’s To the Bone highlights much of hidden world of eating disorders, without going so far as to alienate its audience with more demanding stories of death and self-destruction. This is not end-of-life care, but a point of reckoning in which those afflicted must choose to turn around or succumb to their illnesses. The kookier elements of To the Bone undermine its admirable dramatic work, but ultimately make for an affecting, but flawed, outing.
Binging, purging, weighing, counting calories, and the extremely low self-esteem that engulfs those with eating disorders are on display. This content is largely not depicted, so hidden barf bags and ferreting away food into napkins is a quasi-shock to the audience. The ugly truth behind trying to attain perfection has electric moments in To the Bone. Visibly withering away by denying herself food and over-exercising, anorexic Ellen (Lily Collins of Mirror Mirror) has little energy to fight off family who are trying to save her from herself. Collins is an acerbic force as a young woman who blatantly mocks those that she finds phony, but is unable to confront her own faults without retreating into deadly territory. Having failed other treatment programs, she is accepted by a hailed doctor (Keanu Reeves) into a rehab home with others who are sorting themselves out and trying to heal through a point system which bestows privileges to patients who maintain a healthy weight. We glimpse the self-harm that many inflict with regimented exercise and weight loss, but the wide net cast by the film only hints at the extremity of the real life consequences. Instead of going for the jugular, uplifting scenes are added in that tease romance or magical life-affirming moments and keep To the Bone from feeling like a movie made for adult consumption.
Collins capably portrays someone who no longer possesses the will to do much of what average young women her age want to experience. She hasn’t nourished herself adequately, and her ambitions are notably muted by her debilitating illness. Collins has a closed, caustic glow to her line reading that nicely emotes a talented artist who has been overcome. An exact moment, outside influence, or single family member that may have brought the disorder on is never pinpointed. This is perhaps to the benefit of the film’s goals of empowerment. It broadly projects body issues (including bulimia and overeating) while not giving a definitive road map to recovery. The blurry details allow a wide swath of body issues onscreen. One detraction of this approach is that Ellen still feels like a private person by the end of the film, someone we know mainly through her connections to others and how their selfishness may have led to her impasses. Still, the home brings out a transformative desire for life that Ellen didn’t possess before, which makes a seismic difference in her mind, even it’s not readily apparent in her physical health.
Alex Sharp as the romantic interest, Luke, injects some lightheartedness into the mix, but his spry insights are in such distinct contrast to the content that it steers Ellen’s story away from her anorexia to the pleasures of what she’s missing out on. Seeing her awaken to an appetite for indulgence is sweet and sometimes fun, but seems like a frivolous distraction when it comes to the real work that the story is trying to accomplish. Keanu Reeves strikes a quiet cord with his doctor, gently leading the group without micro-managing their eating or inflicting any more pain then they’ve already been through. He’s even-keeled, and thankfully doesn’t play Ellen’s ultimate savior. Not enough time is spent with Lili Taylor’s mother character, with the exception of a late, emotional scene; we see far more of Carrie Preston’s stepmother, an imperfect but caring individual. To Preston’s credit and skill, her character is completely frustrating in her ignorance and antiquated behavior, so it’s confusing when the story comes to embrace her without rectifying the problems that the protagonist obviously has with her.
The finest point that Noxon’s film delivers is that developing a love and respect for oneself stands outside of others’ opinions, and is the best way to gradually improve overall health. To the Bone elevates the spirit of the grim subject matter to pleasant, satisfying lengths, even if its ambition doesn’t feel up to taking on the worst of what can befall people with eating disorders.