To the Bone

Netflix's anorexia film is good enough that you wish it were better.

By Max Weiss | July 14, 2017, 3:58 pm


To the Bone

Netflix's anorexia film is good enough that you wish it were better.

By Max Weiss | July 14, 2017, 3:58 pm


Get Baltimore Daily.

Sign up today and you'll get our latest stories delivered straight to your inbox every weekday afternoon.

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.

⇓ Article continues below ⇓

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.



Meet The Author
Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.

You May Also Like

Arts District

David Simon Discusses New HBO Series The Deuce

Co-creator talks about his creative process and what he’s working on next.

Arts District

Ten Not-To-Miss Events At The Baltimore Book Festival

The three-day celebration of all things literary returns to the Inner Harbor this weekend

Arts District

The Big Baltimore Playlist: September 2017

The top five local songs you should download right now.


Review: Landline

Jenny Slate shines in this warm, witty, and wise exploration of family and the ties that bind us

Arts & Culture

The Book Thing Bounces Back

A Baltimore literary institution gets reborn, thanks to the community.

Best of Baltimore

Best of Baltimore 2017

Our annual celebration of all things awesome in the Baltimore region.

Connect With Us

Most Read

Baby on Board: What to (Actually) Bring New Parents
What our friends brought us the first time around that made all the difference.

Mug Life
We've gathered some of the most clever mugs to start your day.

Don't Touch That Dial
WYPR looks good at 15.

Cameo: Heidi Daniel
We talk to the new CEO and president of Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Watch This Tape
A Remington shop brings video back from the dead.