Warning: This article contains mild reference to symptoms pertaining to anorexia and bulimia as presented in the film.
Marti Noxon, best known for her role as a writer and co-producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, turns her attention to a disorder closer to home in the new Netflix film To the Bone. This semi-autobiographical work follows 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins), a young woman wedged between her warring birth mother Judy (Lili Taylor) and her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), with whom she lives while fighting a daily battle against her own body dysmorphia.
Susan is horrified by her anorexic step daughter’s weight loss and takes her to a clinic where the straight-talking, charismatic Dr William Beckham (Keanu Reeves) recommends that she enter a residential programme with other young people with eating disorders. She soon develops a close relationship with one of the residents, Luke (Alex Sharp), who introduces her to the ways of the programme and the house including the “torture chamber”, also known as the dining room. To the Bone sheds light on eating disorders through the experience of both Ellen and her fellow housemates without shying away from presenting the reality of recovery. It is at once hopeful and devastating; difficult to watch yet essential viewing.
This is a particularly raw study of eating disorders and the reasoning of a sufferer who wants to be healthy but fears the weight she must gain to achieve this. As someone who has not experienced such a disorder Noxon’s film is at times desperately infuriating. As Ellen’s sister Kelly (Liana Liberato) expresses with love and support but also ignorance, “I just don’t really get it… you know, just… eat”. To the Bone presents a woman who is wasting away before our eyes; a poignant and terrifying way of stressing that eating disorders are not a glamorous choice but a life-threatening sickness.
Any film that exposes the private lives of young people avoiding food in pursuit of a skinny ideal is sure to be met with controversy, but the film shows just enough to shock viewers without providing motivation for sufferers. As Dr Beckham says in a moment which speaks directly to the audience, “there’s plenty of stuff out there for people to fetishise”, and To the Bone works very hard not to fall into this trap.
Collins, who previously suffered from a eating disorder, has made it a matter of public knowledge that a family friend complimented her on her weight loss for the role. But the film itself goes to painstaking lengths not to promote her figure as any kind of female ideal. That said, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Collins doesn’t look dangerously underweight in the film’s opening scenes, simply because oversized jumper hides the truth beneath. Before she steps in front of the scales, she doesn’t appear that much smaller than plenty of other film and TV stars. It’s scary – and more to the point.
The film reveals some disturbing strategies employed by people with eating disorders; once again, things that will already be known to those affected but important for others to witness. Ellen does sit-ups until her protruding spine is bruised, and routinely wraps her hand around the top of her arm to see if she can get her thumb and middle finger to touch. Ellen’s housemates attempt to slip in any exercise they can while under watch in the house; a place where doors are removed and toilets are on lockdown for 30 minutes after mealtimes.
The most upsetting scenes involve admissions of purging, with one young girl concealing “a treasure chest of puke” under her bed in a large brown bag while a girl being fed through a tube panics over the number of calories she is being administered. The film offers a frightening glimpse into the mind of someone suffering from an eating disorder; a world in which there is no such thing as skinny enough and where, in extreme cases, fearing for your life may not be enough to save it.
But by far the most troubling image of the film is that of Ellen’s naked body. She is curled up on the floor, as though disposed of – a shell of a human being. It’s a haunting sight which is juxtaposed by an imagined image of Ellen on the road to recovery, a girl who has colour and life in her cheeks again. It is a gloriously moving dream sequence from Noxon, a message of hope that seeks to suppress the internal voice which leads women and men to hate instead of nurture themselves in the pursuit of the ‘perfect body’.
To the Bone is available on Netflix from 14 July.
Published 9 Jul 2017
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