Film Review: To the Bone

A young Los Angeles woman battles anorexia in Marti Noxon’s emotional yet clear-eyed film that responsibly tackles its topic with good spirits and plenty of empathy.
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Anorexia might be among the most exasperatingly misunderstood diseases out there. Anything from its perceived irrationality to the misuse of its name as a shorthand to describe any and all thin people furthers a misconception that glamorizes a life-threatening disease and equates it to a kind of stubbornness borne of privilege. Loosely based on the director’s own past struggle with the disease, Marti Noxon’s quietly affecting and ultimately optimistic To the Bone thankfully rejects all these erroneous beliefs from the start. Instead, it soberly treats eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as addiction-related mental and physical ailments that rob people of a normal life.

To the Bone is soundly written by Noxon herself and well-acted by a committed ensemble. Most importantly, it is refreshingly well-considered from start to finish. Not knowing in advance the film was based on the writer-director’s own experiences, I immediately felt the topic was in the hands of someone who knows precisely what she’s talking about.

Indeed, you feel Noxon’s first-hand knowledge at work in the unexpected ways she shows her empathy for lead character Ellen (Lily Collins of Okja and Rules Don’t Apply, pitch-perfect in a career-shifting performance that should significantly raise her stock.) It is the kind of empathy that both understands the inner-workings of a young person coping with struggles foreign to the majority of humankind and confronts her unreservedly when necessary. In that sense, you feel a real, unburdened sort of amity between writer Noxon and subject Ellen throughout To the Bone. Moreover, you feel a similar kinship between director Noxon and actor Collins, which makes sense once you realize Collins has also suffered from anorexia.

Living with her sister Anna (Kathryn Prescott) and her overbearing but well-meaning stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) in Los Angeles, Ellen refuses to cooperate with their efforts to get her on the right nutritional track and silently suffers in the hands of her disorder. She purges what little food she eats, does excessive sit ups and stands in the way of any real recovery. Finally agreeing to check into a home for those with eating disorders—led by Dr. William Beckham (a wise and paternal Keanu Reeves)—Ellen starts a new routine of silent disobedience. But thanks to the charming and infinitely determined ex-dancer Luke (Alex Sharp), with whom she builds a real closeness, her edges gradually start to soften. And when Ellen's biological mother (played by Lili Taylor in a brief but memorable part) comes into the picture, Noxon brings all the emotions she had thus far built carefully home.

In following Ellen’s new life, Noxon patiently sculpts the characters of her new home with small but remarkable details, enough to make them seem like real people with believable hardships as opposed to fillers intended solely to further Ellen’s story. Noxon films their collective journey with a hopeful disposition yet doesn’t disregard the fragile nature of their conditions: she doesn’t let you forget for a second how much work it is to hold onto positivity. While recent years have given us Krisha, Rachel Getting Married and Flight as stories of people battling different types of addiction, you need to look as far back as the year 2000 to land on 28 Days as a major film focusing solely on addiction and disease recovery. Given the school of thinking that approaches treating eating disorders as treating addiction, you can draw parallels between the makeshift rituals and tightknit closeness of the community portrayed in To the Bone to that of 28 Days. Still, To the Bone is nearly one-of-a-kind in the way it puts an unapologetically human, heartbreaking face on an oft-misrepresented disease.

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