MOVIE REVIEW: ‘To the Bone’ is a surprisingly restrained, entirely moving depiction of eating disorders

Not exploitative and entirely understanding to a personal degree, this Marti Noxon film succeeds even in its cheesier moments

| July 13, 2017

There’s been quite a buzz about “To the Bone” going around the internet recently, and I can’t necessarily blame those upset by it. After Netflix’s haphazard handling of teen suicide in “13 Reasons Why,” which ended up having a teen in South America commit suicide in a copycat fashion, it’s easy to think that Netflix would handle the topic of eating disorders in the same way in their original film, “To the Bone.” Though, it must be noted that while “To the Bone” is technically a Netflix original film, it’s not a Netflix production, but rather an acquisition from the Sundance Film Festival. In actuality, “To the Bone” was produced independently, and written, produced, directed by a woman who had struggled with an eating disorder most of her life, and starring an actress who has also struggled with the same thing. Having earned strong reviews from Sundance, I still entered “To the Bone” with a level of trepidation that I couldn’t shake until the film actually started.

Does “To the Bone” need a trigger warning? Maybe so. Is “To the Bone” exploitative? Not in the slightest.

From Netflix media: “Ellen (Lily Collins) is an unruly, 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the better part of her teenage years being shepherded through various recovery programs, only to find herself several pounds lighter every time. Determined to find a solution, her dysfunctional family agrees to send her to a group home for youths, which is led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves). Surprised by the unusual rules—and charmed by her fellow patients—Ellen has to discover for herself how to confront her addiction and attempt self-acceptance, in order to stand a chance against her demons.”

It’s easy to look at “To the Bone” and think that it’s just a way for a studio to cash in on real, deadly issues that plague adolescents (mostly, but not all, girls) every day, but this is a film that feels much more sincere and personal than something like “13 Reasons Why” ever got close to doing. This is a narrative that has the perspective of someone who has gone through the struggles she seeks to portray in the film in a way that most films that deal with types of addictions often fail to do. This is a film that doesn’t seek to explain to anyone watching why anyone would have any sort of eating disorder, nor does it give any clear answers on how people can overcome them, but rather narrows her focus on a singular character, one based off of her own experiences.

Collins is fabulous as Ellen, who brings a great amount of life to a character that one might think to feel sorry for at first, but rather is a character who has quite a bit of grit about her. She isn’t a victim, nor is she so strong-willed that she suffers no real setbacks in the film. She’s a character bitter from the promises made to her throughout her various treatments and one who, while never expressly down on life, is beginning to lose hope in her treatments. This is a character that you’ll either love or you will hate, if simply due to her emotional constitution that makes her situation all the more volatile. Reeves is also quite good in the film, proving to the world that he can do more than just action films and can actually break into more dramatic roles without feeling like such a liability.

Are there problems with “To the Bone?” Unfortunately the film is bogged down by a few things that films of this demographic often are targeted with. For one, the film does try a bit hard in some sequences to be inspirational when the film doesn’t necessarily call for it. There is a particular sequence where Dr. Beckman (Reeves) takes the residents on a field trip that becomes quite cheesy in execution that makes the film feel more like a studio-piece than that of a more intimate indie. Luckily, these scenes are scarce.

But there is one thing that actually bothered me in “To the Bone.” No, it wasn’t any sort of portrayal of eating disorders or addiction, but a goddamned forced romantic sub-plot with a love-interest so annoying that I was nearly taken out of the entire story when things began to heat up with him. While it isn’t a typical “love story” by any means, the level of intimacy reached between Ellen and Luke (Alex Sharp) feel completely out of place and unwelcome in a film like this. A personality like Luke’s is fine for a smaller supporting character, but to bring him to the forefront like they did here was unnecessary.

One of the more powerful aspects about “To the Bone” is its “showcase” (for lack of a better term) of the wide variety of eating disorders in which a person can have. While the main character suffers from what most people consider a “standard” eating disorder, that being Anorexia Nervosa, the film also shows depictions of different forms of Bulimia Nervosa, among other ones as well, each with the same sort of validity as the last. I was pleased with this aspect, and while the film never goes in great detail into these respective disorders, as to not show any trigger-worthy material, it’s nice to see the acknowledgment of more than just what the mainstream considers an eating disorder.

In fact, I liked how the film almost becomes a satire in some scenes of how people who have never experienced eating disorders see those who do have it, asking why they can’t “just eat” or “get better.” It wants to bring you close to Ellen, for you to become invested and care for her story and her well-being, and then reflect the world around her back to the audience, letting many of the watchers know that however annoyed you might be with these characters, at one point or another, you were these characters in some form or another. I like a film that makes me feel bad about things I might have said or done in the past, because I know that growth as not only an individual, but as a collective audience is the only way to go from here.

And with that, here comes the big question: is “To the Bone” trigger-worthy? Well, if you live on the internet, you come to learn that anything is trigger-worthy to the right person. But I will say that “To the Bone,” while incredibly respectful, intimate and moving of a portrayal of eating disorders it might be, it doesn’t sugarcoat things for audiences who think they’re in for a simple melodrama. Therefore, I would issue a mild trigger warning to those with certain triggers relating to that of eating disorders or anything of similar nature.

“To the Bone” is not the film the internet will lead you to believe it is. It’s a powerfully personal portrait of eating disorders and the struggles beyond just food or exercise-related issues most people see them as. This is a film that doesn’t sugarcoat experiences, nor does it exploit them in graphic detail for some sort of commercial gain. It’s not a perfect film, as it does lay on the cheese in a few scenes and features a pretty awful romantic sub-plot that ends up being all in vain. But with such an intimate screenplay and wonderfully charismatic and emotional endeavor on Collins’ part, “To the Bone” is what a painful, sometimes heartbreaking, yet entirely optimistic reflection of the world of 21st century addictions, and the ways that those who don’t have the personal experience to completely understand can do to help those who can.

3.5/5

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Directed by: Marti Noxon
Starring: Lily Collins, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Retta, Leslie Bibb, and Keanu Reeves.
Runtime: 107 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Streams exclusively on Netflix starting July 14.

Netflix presents, an Ambi Entertainment and Sparkhouse Media presentation, in association with Foxtail Media, and in association with Ambi Distribution, a Mockingbird Pictures production, a Sparkhouse Media production, a Netflix original film, “To the Bone”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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