Director: Marti Noxon
Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Alex Sharp, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor
Plot: Ellen (Collins) is suffering a severe eating disorder, forcing her parents to send her to a clinic. But first she must admit her problem.
While To The Bone, like Okja, is an example of a festival film bought by Netflix, rather than a home-grown product of the distribution giant, it would be an easy mistake to make. Marti Noxon’s directional style is very similar to Netflix shows like Orange is the New Black or any of the Marvel entries, making it easy to see why it was snapped up so eagerly. Noxon is a big believer in scrapping the flashy camera tricks and letting the narrative and performances do the talking. Cue several quiet shots where characters solemnly discuss what they are going through, usually with a tint of dark comedy.
To The Bone is definitely the style of story that benefits from such a grounded sense of reality. For the uninitiated, this is the story of a wounded, young woman, Ellen, going through treatment of an eating disorder. The script is smart enough to condense the narrative, so this film discusses one part of her treatment. There is no angst-ridden beginning, this story devoid of flashbacks that hark to an earlier, quieter time before the mental illness took hold. And the cynics in the audience will suggest that there isn’t really a happy ending to the treatment forever. We merely get to glimpse the middle of Ellen’s story, so we get a clear account of the daily struggles of young people suffering with the likes of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. The first part of this step is Noxon, who suffered the same condition as her protagonist, dispelling the urban legends about the disorder. As Ellen enters the clinic, where she will start a brand new road to recovery, the other patients are diverse and unique, once again harkening to the ensemble likeness of Orange is the New Black. One of the girls is an over-eater and one of the patients is a male. While Hollywood’s body conformity is brought up, it is not offered as an easy answer. Those not familiar with Netflix’s style of story-telling might be dissuaded at the slow-burning nature of the film, but the truth is, once you’ve got on board with the pace, Noxon’s style is the best possible way to fully tell the story. It constantly bares the honest horror of what these people go through. The whole point of To The Bone is to open up the discussion to a wider audience who might not fully ‘get’ what the victims go through. The ignorant public are shown through the eyes of the parents on the sidelines, confused as to why Ellen doesn’t just “eat”. Eating disorders are such an internal illness it is almost impossible to truly understand what lies beneath. At the same time, the outsiders are not shown to be bad people, merely naïve to what Ellen is actually going through. A heart-breaking account from Ellen’s step-sister is particularly revealing and even when Ellen’s mother and step-mother are being daft, their intentions are never anything less than decent. Hopefully, To The Bone might begin to change this trend with certain scenes that refuse to shy away from the brutality of it all. Whenever we get a glimpse of Lily Collins’ naked body, it is a sobering sight.
At the same time, To The Bone is not a simple case of propaganda to scare young people into veering clear of eating disorders. Some people have criticised the film for not being more heavy-handed in its message. For a large chunk of the time, the characters are talking about things other than their anorexia. Characters discuss knitting, their ambitions as a dancer and romance. One scene sees the patients leave the clinic and spend the day in an art studio, simply enjoying a day out. However, this is not shirking from the meat of the story nor is it suggesting that there is a chance for normality from people not focused on their recovery. It is the same way the prisoners in Orange is the New Black aren’t always being painted as bad guys. For one, that is dull and not very good story-telling. And for another, it is easier to be shocked by the events of To The Bone when we care for the characters in the story. This is where Lily Collins comes in with the most raw performance we have seen from the actress yet. Also a sufferer of the condition, she throws everything into the performance, an angry, self-loathing girl who is aware her life is ebbing away but cannot stop herself from walking down the path to her death. She is both strong and flawed at the same time, in a contradictory performance that is the perfect allegory for the film as a whole: there is nothing simple about eating disorders. For a large part of the film, her quick-witted retorts paint her out to be a thriving person, albeit one with a painfully visible collar bone. It isn’t until the end, when you realise her strengths are also a shield from admitting her weaknesses. As her character pushes away anything and everything that could put her on the road to becoming healthy, we genuinely feel that sense of hopelessness that Noxon is trying to share with us. If we do not understand Ellen, that is okay. The point is to feel for her and recognise her as more than a statistic.
Final Verdict: Shying from easy answers and cliché story-telling traits, To The Bone isn’t an easy watch. But it is a good one.