It’s not often I see a film that makes me want to make a powerful statement like “must see” or more directly “WATCH THIS MOVIE”, especially a film on Netflix. However, probably for the first time, and maybe with a bit of cynicism towards more close minded and politically correct movie review and discussion websites and blogs, I have to say that “To the Bone” is one of this year’s must-see films as an in-your-face, well-acted, and brutally honest look at the risks associated with anorexia. It may not be a PERFECT film but it’s one you really have to see to appreciate.
“To the Bone” stars Lily Collins as Ellen, also known as Eli later in the film, a college dropout who enters an inpatient program to try and manage her struggles with anorexia. For those who don’t know that is an eating disorder characterized by a strong desire to be thin usually brought on by insecurities of one’s weight. The program Eli enters is operated by Dr. William Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves, and sees Eli housed with numerous other patients suffering from their own anorexia battles with varying personalities, side effects, and origins to their individual cases. As Eli bonds with her fellow patients and makes progress in her own battle, several events send her into a spiral that undoes her progress and forces her to decide if she’d rather win her fight and live, or give in to her struggles and die.
It should be noted that while I said you really SHOULD see this movie, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a brutal film that incorporates many real symptoms and destructive tendencies of actual anorexia patients into its plot and characterizations. The film even adds a warning before hand to cover its bases, a move done after the controversy of another Netflix original “13 Reasons” which focused on suicide. Before I delve into all the positives, and some of the negatives, of the overall film, I have to address all the controversy involved with this film. There was a lot of negativity surrounding this movie’s delicate subject matter and while many have called foul on such a movie being made out of fear that it would glorify the illness, I have to call complete BS on such a conclusion especially after watching the film itself.
Throughout the entire movie we see the major impacts that anorexia has on Eli’s body. She does sit ups to help burn calories, resulting in bodily damage, and refuses to swallow her food even when in public. In some ways it comes off as a conscious choice and in other ways it seems to be an obsessive disorder associated with her anorexia. Then we get to see many different variations of the disorder among her peers in the home she stays in for the inpatient program. We see an anorexic MALE dancer recovering from a knee injury who finds the more pleasurable benefits of fine dining has helped him recover and cheers on his fellow patients to recovery. We see a pregnant woman who fears her anorexia may impact the health of her soon-to-be child. And we see a shy and reserved yet fear stricken anorexia patient dealing with issues of self-confidence.
Each patient has their own underlying issues that may or may not be related to their anorexia while Eli herself deals with the results of her art, which drove a woman to suicide, as well as her shattered and splintered family life. It’s a display that shows not only the destructive nature and dangers of anorexia, but that conquering the illness is not as easy or simple as eating and that there are many factors that play into this and other disorders that people fail to understand or recognize. I would hope it makes people with the illness feel they are not alone and that they CAN fight back against it and everything else going on in their lives. While there may still be some who glorify the illness, like those who have offered the downright ridiculous statement that it would make people long for that community, “To the Bone” truly does show that the disorder itself is not worth the pain and that the CURE, not the disease, is what brings people together…the longing to live and to heal is what bonds these people not the fact that they are anorexic.
I know I’ve rambled here, but all this brings me to the excellent acting in this film that pulls no punches in its presentation. Lily Collins provides a truly mesmerizing performance, complete with lost body weight to fit the role, as Ellen (Eli), a snarky and self-centered anorexia patient who doesn’t really seem to WANT to get better. What makes this character so amazing is that it’s hard to tell exactly what the origin of her disorder is. She suffers from a broken family life, depression from the suicide associated with the art she loves so much to produce, and she seemingly settled into her fate giving off a vibe that anorexia is a curse she believes she can’t possibly escape. There are so many layers to this character and Collins manages to bring every one of these layers to the surface throughout the film. It’s a fantastic performance to say the least and one worth appreciating. It’s not QUITE method acting, but it’s probably one of the most intense performances I’ve seen in a long time.
Then you have the larger cast of characters, led by Keanu Reeves as the eccentric and straight-forward Dr. William Beckham who provides some very blunt, if not a little forced, lessons of reality to his patients. He’s not above vulgar language and he doesn’t treat his patients like children. If they don’t change, they will die and he makes this very clear to them while showing compassion and some personal investment in seeing them succeed. This is his life’s goal, the one thing he feels he was born to do, and he takes it seriously. Supporting Lily Collins as patients in Dr. Beckham’s program are Ale Sharp a Luke (shown above), Maya Eshet a Pearl, Ciara Quinn Bravo as Tracy, and Kathryn Prescott as Anna among other talented actors and actresses all presenting patients with different backstories and standout traits that play into their suffering from the disorder. None of these characters are throwaway roles, even if some fade into the background as the story progresses. Each one comes with their own quirks and not once is the disorder glorified through any of these people. They all know it is their weakness and they are beginning to understand that they are stronger than the disorder. While they do all seem content to settle into their situations at times, they’re all encouraged to fight and to seek a better life outside of the destruction their disorder causes them and, for the most part, they embrace it. We even see them lean on each other as inspiration to fight the good fight.
Now I know I’m praising this movie to know end so far, but while I appreciate its message and great presentation it has some issues that keeps it from absolute perfection. While the film is well paced, there are some areas where conflict and resolution are a bit rushed or even dragged out. There’s also a certain sense of predictability as the story unfolds. You can see where it’s going, a skeptic joins a groups of hope-seeking misfits like herself and finds that hope only for tragedy to strike that sends said character back into a spiral of destruction that she eventually has to come to grips with. It’s a narrative we’ve seen before in many similar films through many different circumstances and while this narrative structure fits perfectly in “To the Bone” it does detract from a story very much worth telling. At times it can feel like the drama and conflict is convoluted or all-to convenient. It’s not enough to destroy the message this film so desperately wants to present, but it is enough to detract from the overall quality of the story on the surface. Looking back on it, the generic narrative structure DOES seem required to tell a tale of this kind of significance but maybe it could have been more subtly presented to prevent that narrative from feeling stale.
“To The Bone” is certainly destined to be a controversial cautionary tale, but you know what, that’s what films are meant to do. This is the kind of project that embodies everything cinema should strive to accomplish, telling a powerful story about a powerful subject with respect to the realities of said subject and a bit of drama added in for some entertaining spice. Shying away from issues like anorexia and suicide doesn’t solve the problem, and neither does glorifying it. “To the Bone” manages to find a happy medium where it neither glorifies, nor outright demonizes those who suffer from the disorder and instead humanizes them as people with underlying problems and a struggle few can truly understand. I believe it to be an important film, if inherently flawed by a sense of predictability, and one that approaches a tough subject fearlessly and carefully. Ignore all the forced negativity and cautionary call to action. It is a very uncomfortable film to watch if you understand the disorder and if that is why you chose to steer away from it then I can understand that. But for the rest of you, those who look at it on the surface and denounce it for tackling a scary and controversial subject matter, watch it! See for yourself what this film has to offer. You just might walk away with a whole new perspective of a disease you probably never knew cut pretty deep, to the bone in fact….see what I did there?