To the Bone opens with two alien stick figures walking down a bright corridor. It’s peaceful, as the beings glide from the light towards the camera.
….and into a group therapy session/art class. A girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness, when a sarcastic voice interrupts.
“Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Meet Ellen (Lily Collins), a twenty-year-old anorexic artist bored out of her mind. “There’s no point in blaming everybody. Live with it,” she sneers, before holding up a crude sign saying “suck my skinny balls.”
Not eating makes you cranky. The anorexic Queen of Shade – in off-duty model chic – goes to the middle-class Californian home of her stepmother and half-sister, where she does sit-ups, counts calories, and misses meals. Anorexic stuff.
Ellen’s mother and her lesbian partner are living at their ranch in Arizona and “feeling blessed” on Facebook. Ellen’s father is always working, and interestingly, he’s never onscreen.
His wife, Ellen’s stepmom, played by Carrie Preston, is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Perhaps because he’s good-looking and played by Keanu Reeves. He agrees to treat Ellen, as long as she is admitted as an inpatient.
She moves to Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia and other types of eating disorder such as bulimia and binge eating disorder. Here she befriends a young Brit patient named Luke, who is an annoying show-off. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to a whole angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork supposedly inspiring a girl’s suicide.
Family therapy with Keanu Reeves proves to be a waste of time, although it does allow the film to communicate the contemporary understanding that eating disorders are complex conditions with no single ’cause’. The film is also good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel.
Viewers are likely to be as confused as Ellen’s sister, wondering why she doesn’t “just eat.” Anorexia is abstract and internal. Films can show emaciation with weight loss, body doubles, makeup and CGI. But anorexic thoughts, or a compulsive urge to get ‘down to the bone’, is a challenge for storytellers.
Perhaps anorexia could be better explored through fantastical, less literal means. To the Bone’s opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she sees her malnourished form with a different lens also had the inkling of something more original.
As balance, there’s a cringe-making dance scene that goes on forever, as artsy dance scenes tend to do.
Verdict: Lily Collins proves there is more to life than being beautiful and the product of nepotism. To the Bone is a conventional teen drama, with a message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity.