Directed by Marti Noxon
Starring Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor
Netflix Film Review by Evie Brudenall
Eating disorders and anorexia are both a taboo subject area and also wildly misrepresented on the big screen where it is often depicted as a backdrop to facilitate painful melodrama. In all, it is rarely treated as the serious mental illness that it is. That is until Marti Noxon’s debut drama To The Bone, a sincere, unflashy and at times darkly comic look at an illness that refuses to define its characters.
Ellen (Lily Collins), a brooding 20-year-old anorexia sufferer, has spent the majority of her teenage years in various recovery programmes without result. Her desperate and dysfunctional family are determined to find a solution and send her to a group home for youths under the guidance of the controversial Dr Beckham (Keanu Reeves).
Based on the movie trailer alone, people were quick to dismiss Netflix Original To The Bone and accuse it, and the creative team behind it, of romanticising eating disorders and glamourising the illness that gravely effects so many. The promotional material for the film may have given the wrong impression or spectators could have jumped the gun with their assumptions. Perhaps it’s a confluence of the two, but UK Film Review’s verdict is that the affliction is handled with complete sensitivity. Both writer/director Noxon and star Collins have a history with eating disorders and their experience and fingerprints over the picture prevent it from becoming Tumblr fodder.
To The Bone has a plethora of strengths but Noxon’s writing, particularly the dynamics between characters, is certainly a mentionable one. The root of Ellen’s problems is hard to identify but Nixon heavily implies that they may stem from her uniquely frustrating family. She is largely raised by her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), a well intentioned albeit overbearing figure who often misjudges the appropriate way to to approach Ellen’s disorder, such as presenting her with a hamburger shaped cake that reads, ‘Eat Up, Ellen!” in icing. Her father is never seen, with Susan attributing his constant absence to his hectic work schedule and her mother lives in Phoenix, citing that Ellen cannot live with her due to her inability to facilitate her daughter’s condition. But she does “send hugs”. The only person who sees Ellen as a person and not a problem is her half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), but a family therapy session reveals just how emotionally affected she is by her sister’s anorexia. The family dynamic extends to the group home where characters assume a different function depending on their stage of recovery. Every single supporting character feels like a fully fledged person in their own right, each burdened with their own varying struggles.
Noxon’s writing may shine but her direction is unimposing, allowing for the attention to fall completely on the astounding acting. Collins as Ellen (later renamed Eli) is a captivating presence as the focal point of almost every frame and arguably delivers the finest performance of her relatively short career. Ellen is a character whose sharp tongue and often scathing remarks can make her unlikable. Under different circumstances and with another actress at the helm, that could have been the case but Collins imbues the role with a charm and vulnerability that makes us thoroughly invested in Ellen’s journey. It’s a journey that is constantly arduous and moments that may seem like progression, like a potential romance with fellow patient Luke (Alex Sharp), are instead complications as the film thankfully resists the urge to have a love interest become the cure that our protagonist has been waiting for.
Touching, funny and poignant in one graceful sweep, To The Bone is a stellar debut from a filmmaker whose sensitive, dark and artistic voice deserves to be heard.