There is no story that won’t have its drawbacks or its flaws; no story that can withstand any scrutiny when perceived through fear. Such is the case with the latest Netflix film To The Bone, written and directed by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It’s a story of a girl struggling with anorexia. There is a strong belief that a film like this will encourage some to idealize the ultra-thin physicality of lead character Ellen or bolster those that already do. As someone who’s struggled with body dysmorphic disorder, To The Bone makes heroes out of no one and glorifies nothing. Impressively, Noxon removes the glamour to tell a story that may actually open some minds to help better understand an illness too many struggle with daily.
Ellen (Lilly Collins) is a 20-year old anorexic artist who bounces from one in-patient treatment facility to another as her family struggles to get her help. At the end of their rope, her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) gets Ellen a meeting with unconventional doctor William Beckham (Keanu Reeves) whose treatment facility offers results for those who want it. This challenge defines Ellen’s struggle. She knows what her condition is and accepts that it will eventually kill her because doing anything different seems insane.
Discussing any type of dysmorphic disorder on film is going to be tricky. There is a fine line to ensure an honest portrayal on and not straying into a depiction that glamorizes the condition or presents a false representation. In this, Noxon appears to succeed completely by shedding any teenage/afterschool special drama in favor of natural, matter-of-fact storytelling. Rather than featuring a cast of caricatures, each member of Threshold – the name of the suburban treatment facility run by Beckham and in-patient facilitator Lobo (Rhetta) – behaves exactly as you’d expect in real life. They swap stories about their binge/purge habits the same way others might share stories about scars. They keep each other’s secrets, even when they know it’s against their best interests. Most importantly, they are hyper-aware that the treatment offered by Beckham may be their last chance. For some, that means recognizing that the life they once had is the end game. For others, like Ellen, that means recognizing that her condition is a false sense of control; a control she seeks as either a form of redemption or in response to loss or something else entirely. All of this is treated as secondary to the narrative as Ellen must make a choice: to give up or find the courage to move forward.
This is, perhaps, the greatest strength to the whole of To The Bone: Ellen is neither hero nor victim. She is acerbic and stubborn, but she is not without self-awareness. She, like the others in treatment, know what they are doing and discuss it openly, aware that their choices come at great cost. In one subplot, housemate Megan (Leslie Bibb) struggles with potential parenthood and how it inspires within her a need to care for someone other than herself. In another, housemate Luke (Alex Sharp) longs to be a dancer again for a New Jersey production company, a life he once had ruined when his illness resulted in a damaged knee. Each of the roommates have their own stories, some which are delved into and others inferred, and Noxon presents each as fully-formed individuals whose illness drives them against their better instincts.
Impressively, the man behind the healing, Dr. Beckham, is in only a few scenes of the film. His role as healer is unconventional, something made clear immediately when he evaluates Ellen for the first time. He makes statements about her health – as opposed to inquiring – and offers a “no bullshit” stance. His treatment can only work if the patient is receptive, so he will challenge, support, and offer guidance, but the choice to heal is ultimately up to the participant. This concept may startle some viewers, especially with an illness as complex as Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but Noxon’s underlying theme throughout To The Bone is one of self-acceptance and self-reliance even down to the Anne Sexton poem Courage (read by one of the characters mid-film), which suggests that of the battles individuals face, it’s the ability to get back up, to confront them, which defines us. This is ultimately Dr. Beckham’s role within the film, to present to Ellen a foil that will neither present reassurance, back down from her barbs, lash out, nor place blame but rather one to present to her a chance to evaluate and decide for herself.
For an initial feature outing, Noxon’s work is impressive. She favors honest character moments over false cinematic bravado in an effort to present real people struggling with a real condition. Though there are plenty of laughs, this isn’t a comedy. Though there is a love story, it’s awkward and ultimately uncomfortable. There is no glory to be found and no real resolution as the film concludes before Ellen’s story is truly over. This is the portion that matters most both thematically and cinematically about To The Bone because for many, the struggle never ends, and that’s something that viewers of this film may suddenly realize.
Writer’s note: Marti Noxon participated in an NPR interview on July 13, 2017 detailing her own struggle with anorexia which served as inspiration for the film.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.