After the soaring cinematic heights of Okja, Netflix has come down to earth with its latest original film, Marti Noxon’s To the Bone, a fitfully successful exploration of anorexia that plays like a slightly above-average TV movie.
Lily Collins (who, coincidentally, was also in Okja) plays Ellen, a 20 year old artist struggling with the disease. She gets kicked out of a group treatment center for being too surly and then gets put in a so-called “radical” treatment program led by Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).
Ellen has a potentially interesting family dynamic that is woefully under-developed. Ellen used to live on a hippyish ranch with her lesbian mom, Judy (Lili Taylor) and her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), but they couldn’t handle Ellen’s self-destructiveness so they sent her to live with her workaholic father, who is mentioned often in the film but, bizarrely, never seen. (If you’re going to have a plot point about a father who retreats into his work life because he can’t deal with his daughter’s illness—I dunno, maybe show him a few times?). Ellen is basically being raised by her step-mom, Susan (Carrie Preston), one of those cheerful suburban perfectionists who is just trying to keep it all together.
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It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to feel about these people. Susan says all the wrong things, as parents often do, but is 100-percent there for Ellen—she’s truly the only responsible adult in Ellen’s life. As for Judy, I think we’re supposed to let her off the hook for reasons unclear. Because…Ellen is impossible to live with? Withholding of her love? Because watching your daughter waste away is…hard? A scene toward the end of the film where Judy cradles Ellen in her arms and literally feeds her from a bottle—an attempt to make up for the bonding that didn’t occur after Ellen was born (Judy had post-partum depression)—didn’t work for me, but then again, I’ve always been a bit squeamish about New Age-y stuff like that.
On the other hand, Ellen’s relationship with her step-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberto), is convincing and touching. Kelly loves her older sister, even admires her, but she’s mad at her, too—mad for how Ellen’s illness subsumes every aspect of Kelly’s life, and mad because she’s so scared of losing her. “If you die, I’ll kill you,” she says to Ellen at one point—and it makes perfect sense.
The dynamics at the group home where Beckham does his “radical” treatment are also a mixed bag. For starters, there’s nothing radical about this treatment at all. There’s talk therapy, “family” meals, weigh-in sessions, and points earned for good behavior. The only thing even remotely unusual about Beckham’s treatment is that he administers a kind of tough love, maintaining that life is mostly a struggle, with a few wonderful bright spots, and that people should stop pitying themselves and just deal with it. Reeves, doing Menschy Keanu here—last seen in Something’s Gotta Give—is just fine. Personally, I prefer Action Keanu.
At the home, Ellen meets her potential love interest Luke (Alex Sharp), a British dancer with a bum knee, whose depression over his injury has triggered anorexia. I didn’t believe a second of this livewire, wise-cracking, Dashiell Hammett-quoting character, but, hey, at least he’s entertaining. The other patients in the group home include a pregnant young woman (she’s nicknamed “unicorn,” since most anorexics stop getting their period), a girl who hides her vomit in a bag under her bed, and another girl who pushes laxatives like a drug dealer. They are all thinly sketched out.
The best thing about the film? It really seems to get anorexia. A scene where Ellen goes on a date with Luke to a Chinese restaurant and proceeds to chew and spit out all of her food is both sad and shocking. Also ringing painfully true: the fact that Ellen knows the exact calorie count of every bit of food she consumes and the way she constantly measures the circumference of her arm—she wants it to be as thin as her index finger and thumb forming a circle. And the film understands that anorexia is not really about losing weight at all: It’s an addiction, an attempt to gain control of the body in a hostile world, and, often, a response to sexual abuse (although not necessarily in Ellen’s case—the film is a bit vague on that front).
As for Lily Collins, she’s excellent in the lead role, disappearing deeply into the character, never holding back on the grim realities of the disease, but even her presence is a bit troubling. For starters, even in her emaciated form (the actress lost a lot of weight for the part although her sickly appearance is, of course, also aided by makeup), Collins is a beauty—and with oversized sunglasses and Ellen’s ever-present cigarettes, she could almost be described as glamorous. Of course, I’m sure glamorizing anorexia is the last thing on earth Noxon and co. wanted to do—again, the film is unflinching in its depiction of anorexia’s ugly truths, including the fact that Ellen’s arms get hairier to keep her warm—but hiring a plainer actress would’ve gone a long way. (This is not unique to this film, of course: It’s also true of literally every film about junkies.) Even more concerning: Collins herself has been open about a history with eating disorders (Noxon as well). I understand why that makes her uniquely qualified to play the part, but it does raise the question: Was it irresponsible of the filmmakers to allow her to lose so much weight? I’m not a social worker or a therapist, so I don’t have the answer to that, but it certainly made me uneasy.
To the Bone comes complete with a pat ending that seems a bit rushed. I honestly think the film might’ve worked better as a mini-series—they could’ve fleshed out all the supporting characters and given Ellen’s recovery a better, more realistic pace. As it is, it’s maddeningly inconsistent, a film that is constantly reminding you of how much better it should be.
To the Bone is now streaming on Netflix.