Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’ is a dazzlingly human look at eating disorders
“To the Bone” is a force. Written and directed by Marti Noxon, known for her work as a writer and producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the Netflix release tells the story of Ellen (Lily Collins, “Okja”), a 20-year old woman suffering from anorexia nervosa. After several futile recovery programs, Ellen’s family finds Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves, “Quantum is Calling”). He’s unconventional and brash, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that Ellen is going to die if she doesn’t get better. She ends up at a group home, run by Dr. Beckham, for youths with eating disorders.
There, Ellen meets Luke (Alex Sharp, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”), an ex-ballerina and the film’s main comedic relief. He’s den-mother for the others in the home, cheering everyone on while going through his own recovery. When Ellen arrives at the home, she’s what he needs. He’s what she isn’t ready to admit she really wants. Their relationship is mostly funny, sometimes sweet and, right at the end, devastating.
The film is stunning in the most human way. Both Collins and Noxon have struggled with eating disorders, and the character of Ellen was derived from real instances in Noxon’s life. Upon its release, the movie has come under fire for glamorizing anorexia and promoting thinness amongst young people, but I just don’t agree.
Watching Ellen plummet to rock bottom was gruesome. “To the Bone” shows her full profile sparingly. When it does, it’s painful. Her fragility is a supporting character, the hunch in her spine and gauntness of her cheeks a constant in every scene. Brittle, bruised, broken — Ellen is losing herself, inside and out.
Collins exudes a subtle elegance in all of her roles, and this air of maturity is part of what made Ellen so difficult to watch. She’s grown up, yet still so young. She has an entire life ahead of her, and she may never get to see it. There’s nothing glamorous about that.
Her family is dysfunctional — as most are — and her parents don’t quite know how to help her, as most don’t. Her sister (Liana Liberato, “1 Mile to You”) is the only silver lining, loving Ellen unconditionally and sharing her sardonic humor in a way that only a sister could. She speaks up at their first, and only, family therapy session, prompted by Dr. Beckham. She’s compassionate and hurt, and Liberato delivers her lines with a wisdom unseen in some of her previous films. It’s a very real moment of a very real, messy family dynamic.
Reeves’s performance is perfect. He plays the out-of-the-box doctor, equal parts unexpectedly hot and surprisingly cool. He’s the backbone of the film. Dr. Beckham isn’t just teaching the kids about nutrition or healthy eating; he’s trying to show them that their lives are worth living. He’s human in every sense of the word — deeply empathetic and selflessly courageous. Beckham is the necessary hero, underlying every decision Ellen makes and always being there, even when she doesn’t ask. Near the end of the movie, when Ellen runs from the home and nearly dies trying to make herself believe that Beckham can’t help her, he’s there, waiting for her to circle back and knowing that she will.
Ellen’s resilience is harrowing, and the last 15 minutes of the picture are challenging to watch. In not showing a healthier, renewed “after” image of Ellen, Noxon takes a final swing at anorexia nervosa and the chaos it brings to people’s lives. There’s no easy way out, and it’s a lifelong battle for many. Ellen can’t just wake up and be better because real people can’t do that, and the character of Ellen is incredibly real.
Not everyone is going to welcome “To the Bone.” It’s in the nature of the film to be controversial. The point is it opens a discussion. It stirs up questions about body image and the language we use to treat ourselves and others when considering mental illness. It begs that you reflect on what, or who, you’re living for. “To the Bone” packs a punch, and whether you agree with its representation of eating disorders or not, it’s worth a watch.