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, where a girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness.
A sarcastic voice interrupts. “Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Ellen (Lily Collins) is a twenty-year-old anorexic artist. “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 – returns to the middle-class Californian home of her stepmother and half-sister, where she does sit-ups, counts calories, skips meals. Anorexic stuff.
Ellen’s mother and her lesbian partner are living at a ranch in Arizona, “feeling blessed” on Facebook. Ellen’s father is away working, and is never onscreen.
It’s Ellen’s stepmom who is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. Yes. Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Because he’s played by Keanu Reeves?
He agrees to treat Ellen as an inpatient at Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Ellen befriends an annoying show-off named Luke. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to an angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork inspiring a girl’s suicide.
Family therapy with Keanu 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 good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel, although 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.
The opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she see finally sees her malnourished form without the veil of anorexia also had the hint of something more inspired.
But To The Bone is a typical teen drama with a stock message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity, and an old-fashioned little made-for-TV flick that would have slipped by unnoticed on Netflix’s roster if it weren’t for the valuable controversy. People have been treating it like it is unavoidable.
It says something about the change in the entertainment landscape, that an average made-for-TV soap opera flick could become so discussed in the media and online. At least it wasn’t a series, or we’d have had to avoid using the term ‘binge watch.’
At least star Lily Collins emerges from it well, having proved there is way more to her than being the product of nepotism.