'People say they love you. But what they mean is they love how loving you makes them feel about themselves'
Kicked out of yet another inpatient unit, 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins) tries something new with eccentric psychiatrist, Dr.Beckham (Keanu Reeves). Forced into the care of the Dr.Beckham's residential program, here she meets fellow eating disorder sufferer Luke (Alex Sharp), who's recuperating after sustaining a leg injury that's stopped him from dancing. Ellen is forced to confront her erratic relationship with food, as well as her volatile relationships with those around her.
Eating disorders are notoriously difficult to portray on the silver screen. Charged with the responsibility of portraying the illness in a way that doesn't glamorise or sensationalise, films don't have the luxury of time the way tv shows do. With this being said, there are few tv shows that get the equilibrium right either. The many television dramas and rare cinematic examples are often fraught with stereotypes, led by privileged white teens with skeletal frames.
In order to accurately depict any mental illness, a fine line has to be tread such that it doesn't become a 'how-to' for vulnerable viewers. To The Bone isn't perfect. Lily Collins fits the familiar protagonist mould, and the word 'Rexies' is introduced as if sufferers and online communities need another hokey term to refer to themselves by. With these pitfalls aside, what To The Bone brings is much more introspective. Managing to be funny and light-hearted where needed, it respects the fine line it treads. The seriousness and harsh truths of the disorder are made evident without being trivialised.
Through Ellen and her fellow housemates, we traverse the realities of disordered eating behaviours. Girls casually discuss which foods are easier to purge around the kitchen sink. Roommate Pearl (Maya Eshet), suspended in a state of childhood innocence reminiscent of Girl, Interrupted's Polly, panics at the number of calories she's taking in through her feeding tube. Meanwhile, Kathryn Prescott's reserved Anna hides a bag of sick under her bed, bringing to mind the late Brittany Murphy's Daisy of the same film.
Whether Girl, Interrupted served as inspiration for Marti Noxon's To The Bone is unclear. What is evident is that she knows what makes an eating disorder sufferer tick, having suffered from anorexia nervosa herself in the past. To cast ex-anorectic Lily Collins in the lead role also proved to be a bold and controversial move. A successful one at that. Collins really shines in this role, putting forward her best performance yet. She inhabits the role exquisitely, projecting an air of guardedness and profound guilt in the face of her condition.
Told by her sister more than once that she looks like crap, Ellen never flaunts her appearance or perpetuates the idea that eating disorders are born out of vanity. Instead, she conceals her emaciated frame under baggy shirts and jackets. When she incredulously asks Luke how he manages to eat, he answers by telling her in all honesty, 'I'm not gonna lie, I'm really fucking hungry'. It's a line that encapsulates a feeling many are met with when going through the recovery process, a sense of making up for lost time without losing control again.
The film's third act contains an especially poignant scene between Ellen and her biological mother Judy (Lili Taylor). The regressive and isolating nature of the illness is laid bare. A perfect, symmetric shot isolates them in the dark, brought back to a simpler time to cope with the horror of the present. It's a moving scene that could so easily have missed the mark on paper, but is so delicately handled by Collins and Taylor onscreen. Judy's loss of hope unfolds before our eyes, while Ellen's vulnerability is palpable.
To The Bone at once manages to approach its subject matter with optimism and harrowing poignancy. Nobody magically gets better. There's no real happy ending, and perhaps that's the point. Ditching political correctness in favour of refreshing sincerity, here is a film that aims to level its audience emotionally without making a spectacle of the very real struggles faced by victims of this illness.