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‘To the Bone’ is a cringeworthy drama about anorexia that adds little to the conversation

Lily Collins stars in ‘To the Bone’, a film about one woman’s experience with anorexia.

Spoiler alert: This review contains detailed information about the plot of To the Bone.

To the Bone, a Netflix film about one woman’s life-threatening experience with anorexia, begins at an unnecessarily awkward moment.

Our sarcastic protagonist, Ellen (Lily Collins), has just left a Los Angeles treatment center after being cruel to another patient. When Ellen walks into her father and stepmother’s home, she’s greeted by Rosa, a woman who’s presumably the family’s housekeeper and is surprised that she’s back so soon.

"No more trips to [Tijuana], Rosa," Ellen quips. "I think they put cement in your lips."

White upper middle-class women playing off their emotional pain for laughs say the darnedest things.

To the Bone isn’t a particularly good film, and it’s not just because of cringeworthy moments like this one, though there are too many of them. At the heart of the film’s failure is that it never finds novel or compelling ways to depict the insularity of mental illness. Instead, it relies on familiar physical tropes: near-death thinness, a bruised and protruding spine, an arm so frail that Ellen can hold it between two fingers with frightening ease.

When the trailer for To the Bone debuted last month, controversy erupted over how the film would portray anorexia. Experts and survivors in the eating disorder community said it came dangerously close to glamorizing an illness that can be fatal. They also worried that the film might traffic in triggering imagery that could negatively affect some people’s recovery. Marti Noxon, the film’s writer and director, talked about basing the film on her firsthand struggle with anorexia and bulimia. She wrote passionately of wanting the film to responsibly serve as a "conversation starter."

I think it’s important to evaluate where u are in yr recovery, if you’ve suffered & if yr in a place to see representations of the disease 💛 https://t.co/GQIENVy94j

— marti noxon (@martinoxon) July 9, 2017

It has succeeded in that regard, but perhaps not in the way Noxon intended. Survivors and experts have come forward to talk about the media’s obsession with anorexia to the exclusion of other types of disordered eating. Like Ellen, the protagonist is typically a thin white woman who can afford extensive treatment. Those experiences are real and deserve to be heard at some level, but even people who have lived them personally are demanding richer portrayals that reflect the diversity of human experience.

Though Noxon and the film’s supporters suggested the film would offer a more complex reality than the one presented in the trailer, there’s not much more to behold. There are a few characters of color and they don’t get that much dialogue. One of them, a plus-size black woman named Kendra, is seemingly the only patient at the treatment center for binge eating. That character choice arguably plays into problematic stereotypes.

“My eating disorder story — and the collective story of those like me — has become the only story." -@fyeahmfabello https://t.co/ZDyjCRbUd8

— Raquel Reichard (@RaquelReichard) July 7, 2017

While several other patients get one-one-one scenes with Ellen to humanize their conditions, Kendra’s biggest moment is supposed to be a laugh line. "Damn, Dr. [Beckham], you tryna’ turn me straight?" she says, when the group’s unconventional doctor, played by Keanu Reeves, arrives at an outing wearing snug jeans and a button up shirt. He jokes back: "That’s a different program."

That’s just one of the many objectionable moments that pile up in To the Bone. In fact, much of the talk about sexual orientation and sexuality is puzzling or offensive. When Ellen changes her name to Eli at Beckham’s inexplicable suggestion, her love interest asks if she’s gay. "Most definitely not gay," she insists. Good, he says, because the "male population cannot take another quality defection."

When Ellen eventually wants to diminish her feelings for that fellow patient during a therapy session with Beckham, she blurts out, "Whatever, he’s totally gay." Ellen’s mom, by the way, is a lesbian.

And the man who is supposed to be the charming, quirky guy who saves Ellen from herself instead comes off as manipulative and obsessive. After Ellen describes the emotional scars of feeling preyed upon by men, he lunges in for a kiss without warning anyway. Somehow To the Bone wants us to believe their relationship may just lead to true love.

It’s impossible to shake the feeling that something is amiss in the film’s very fabric. That may just be the tension of trying to put on film a journey that often isn’t Hollywood-ready. Filmmakers and audiences crave visual or emotional fireworks, and yet real life often renders mental illness in mundane and ordinary ways. The drip-drip effect of anxiety or depression, for example, isn’t easily translated in movies, but it’s how millions of Americans go through their day. Plenty of people who experience an eating disorder don’t look like they’re on the verge of death, but that’s a visually arresting shortcut for emotional pain.

So it’s no surprise that the script stumbles through revealing the sources of Ellen’s anguish, and her path forward. True to life, there is no single cause, just the cumulative effect of feeling unloved by an absent father, a self-absorbed step-mother, and a mom whose own mental health struggles have drawn her to the periphery of Ellen’s life. In an unexpectedly meta subplot, Ellen is also haunted by the death of a young woman who admired her Tumblr "thinspiration" drawings and sent her a suicide note. The film wants to raise the stakes of Ellen’s pain, but never justly explores the complicated feelings she must have about the death.

That could be To the Bone’s way of acknowledging the threat of its own existence: someone may watch this film and instead of feeling hopeful about their recovery, think that if Ellen can come so close to death herself and survive, they can keep pushing themselves to the limit as well.

It’s telling that the film raises the blurry moral and ethical lines around what it means to responsibly share your experience with an eating disorder and then keeps the question at a comfortable distance. A great film would find a way to be more honest with itself — and its audience.

Unfortunately, like most elements of the To the Bone, the film never gathers the courage to fully realize its most provocative thought.

If you want to talk to someone about your experience with disordered eating, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association (U.S.), National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada), The Butterfly Foundation (Australia), the National Centre for Eating Disorders (UK) and We Bite Back can also offer support.

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