In the months leading up to the premiere of the new Netflix movie “To The Bone,” pundits and advocates worried that it would glamorize anorexia and other eating disorders. But as writer/director Marti Noxon promised, these concerned onlookers have nothing to fear - the film in no way makes the brutal and deadly disease look fun, or its victims beautiful.
The problem is, it doesn't really offer a different message, either.
Lily Collins got sickly skinny to play Ellen, an anorexic girl with a somewhat troubled family. She's been especially reeling since a drawing she made of a girl harming herself went viral on Tumblr, and allegedly inspired a girl who saw it to commit suicide. When we meet her, Ellen is getting kicked out of her latest rehab center, with a snarky attitude that masks her pain and a lively presence that belies just how sick she's gotten. Her stepmom Susan (Carrie Preston) is largely responsible for her wellbeing, and is always trying to figure out just why Ellen refuses to ever eat much anything.
Whenever Susan suggests another reason -- she's especially fixated on Ellen’s mom being gay and living in Phoenix -- Ellen brushes her off. Noxon struggled with an eating disorder herself, and so she knows that often, they are the result of a combination of many things, from social pressures to chemical disorders, like many mental illnesses. By not assigning blame to one thing, she's saying that this could happen to anyone -- which is true, but also makes it hard for a protagonist to express herself or grow.
Ellen soon moves into a smaller inpatient facility, a house in suburban LA run by a doctor named Dr. William Beckham, played with classic aloofness by Keanu Reeves. Nearly a dozen teens and people in their 20s with eating disorders live there, sharing meals and inspiring one another to get better… though it seems at first glance that any healing happens at a glacial pace.
Dr. Beckham practices a rewards-based system that also requires some tough love, which Ellen desperately needs. She's able to fool everyone but herself -- and Dr. Beckham, who calls her out for her sneaky behavior and bad attitude. Ellen gets a different kind of love from a patient named Luke (Alex Sharp), a charming British dancer who is trying to rehab a devastating leg injury. He's sort of the team cheerleader, keeping up spirits even as people struggle with nutrition tubes and a risky pregnancy (Leslie Bibb gives a strong performance as a very troubled mother-to-be).
It's an interesting look into the lives of people who struggle with these issues, especially in an America both obsessed with body image and junk food. But it's unclear what the film is actually trying to say; Ellen has her ups and major downs, but she's sort of a cipher, in that her internal struggles stay that way.
There is a Freeform Network feel to the movie, with a little bit of realism and grit added in because Netflix lets anything fly. It'll be a good watch for anyone dealing with eating disorders, and good insight into that day to day struggle for people who have no problems at mealtime. But it lacks broader insight, which keeps “To the Bone” a bit skin-deep.