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TO THE BONE (2017) review

July 14, 2017

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written by: Marti Noxon
produced by: Bonnie Curtis, Karina Miller and Julie Lynn
directed by: Marti Noxon
rated: unrated
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: July 14, 2017 (Netflix)

 

Outside of documentaries, there aren’t that many films taking on the subject of eating disorders. A quick Google search shows that anorexia, one type of eating disorder, has the highest death rate of any other mental illness. Yet to the general public, such disorders are rarely considered psychological conditions, rather simply an “illness” that is often considering embarrassing and something that’s not discussed out in the open or featured in movies, like forms of depression or addiction are. Like those hurting individuals who struggle with eating disorders, the topic seems to be something that is hidden. In her feature-length directorial debut, “To the Bone”, writer/director Marti Noxon takes an assured grasp of the subject, getting under the skin of characters who engage in irregular eating habits, obsess over body image and caloric intake, as well as the torment it causes themselves and those close to them.

Twenty-year-old artist, Ellen (Lily Collins), has been battling anorexia nervosa for a long time, distancing her family in the process. Her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), had her own mental illness to contend with, which led to Ellen being raised by her father (who is tellingly absent throughout the film) at an early age. The only close familial relationship she has is with her younger sister, Kelly (a scene-stealing Liana Liberato), but even that is strained due to the concerns and fears Kelly has for Ellen. After previous failed attempts at treatment, Ellen’s talkative and claustrophobically assertive stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), secures a place for her at a place called Threshold, a unique facility overseen by Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves), which offers a different treatment approach than she’s used to.

 

To The Bone

 

Dr. Beckham requires a six-week inpatient program that includes individual and group therapy, but with a catch – Ellen is required to live in a home with six other patients with eating disorders, using a special privilege system to encourage weight gain. Knowing that the alternative is being sent to live with her estranged mother (who came out as gay when Ellen turned thirteen) and her partner Olive (Brooke Smith) in Phoenix, Ellen agrees to the program.

The home is akin to one big sorority house, overseen by a live-in den mother (Retta of “Parks and Recreation”) and inhabited by other young residents struggling with a variety of eating disorders. As Ellen is given a tour by the charming and energetic, Luke (an engaging Alex Sharp, making his film debut), a ballet dancer from Londoner who turned to anorexia after a knee injury halted any career pursuits. There is where we meet Pearl (Maya Eshet), a shy, pony-obsessed roommate of Ellen’s who is introduced while in bed with a tube in her nose (in order for her to receive nourishment). Megan (an uncredited Leslie Bibb) is pregnant, trying to make it to her first trimester despite her thinness (one gets the idea she has unsuccessfully tried this before). It’s during this introduction of the supporting characters that the film inevitably resembles “Girl, Interrupted” and later on when a possible romantic development occurs between Luke and Ellen, there’s a prayer that the film isn’t going to a take a dip into “The Faults in Our Stars” territory. Thankfully, it doesn’t – adding understandable complications to the hesitant relationship the two develop.

The particular rules of Threshold are established early on and easily draw us in, since this place is lauded as some radical place. Up until then, we get an idea that Ellen knows how to hide her behavior from others  – sip broth, wear baggy clothes, she is a master at counting calories (a talent she calls “caloric Asbergers”) and deflect concern from others – but when these new parameters are laid out before her, we wonder how she will do. These restrictions aren’t necessarily ground-breaking – there are no doors inside, mandatory weigh-ins, no cell phones or tablets allowed, and you are required to sit at the dinner table (dubbed “the torture chamber” by Luke) regardless of whether you eat and what you eat is entirely up to you – and some of them can be lifted once each resident “levels-up” by doing chores, which can lead to awards such as permission to leave the grounds.

 

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The more time spent here, the more Ellen realizes her usual sarcasm and routine workout bursts of night time sit-ups and cardio, just won’t work here. As the film progresses, Noxon slowly introduces bits of Ellen’s compelling recent backstory that informs us of where she’s coming from, providing understanding for her behavior.  We learn that her condition was recently exacerbated by an unexpected tragedy that she still feels responsible for, leading to a revelation regarding her artistic outlet.  While the focus remains on Ellen, we also learn just enough about her family members (there’s an excellent key family therapy sequence led by Reeve’s doctor that is an exemplary display of the talented cast) and newfound friends.

Some may find the casting of Keanu Reeves as this supposedly radical physician, kind of a stretch to believe, but they would be the ones that haven’t been paying attention to his filmography very closely. Reeves can ooze charm and charisma without working up a sweat and is actually quite good at playing doctor, as we saw “Something’s Gotta Give”. His Dr. Beckham has a patient and attentive approach here that lends a great believability to his no-nonsense, straightforward delivery. To be honest, with the talk of this film coming out of Sundance earlier this year, I somehow thought Reeve’s approach would be much more psychologically extreme, but Noxon writes him as knowledgeable and genuinely concerned doctor, who gives his patients room to figure things out on their own in an environment where they can be accepted and potentially find a way to flourish. His work is less about a cure and more about coping and surviving with an illness.

 

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“To the Bone” is guaranteed to have harsh criticism heaped upon it, both by those who’ve experienced (or are experiencing) such an illness or are close to someone who has/is, as well as reviewers who will unfairly dismiss it as a “TV movie of the week”. Right from the film’s opening, it’s clear this is far-removed from your typical Lifetime fare. When we’re introduced to Ellen, she’s rolling her eyes through yet another inpatient program with a surly, straight-shooting attitude and it’s clear from her sunken physicality and disregard that already checked out. When it’s her time to share something constructive during her group session, she smugly holds up a crafty sign she worked on which reads, “Suck my skinny balls.” That right there establishes that Noxon’s drama isn’t out to be a downer or a feel-good overcoming tale, but rather a blunt story that has its heart in the right place and speaks from a place of knowledge on the subject.

That last part is no surprise considering that Noxon is using her own past experience with eating disorders to inform the material here and Collins has mentioned that she was writing a chapter on her own struggle with eating disorders during her teen years for a book she was working on when she got the screenplay from Noxon. So, there’s a definite openness on display, an authentic synchronicity that Noxon and Collins bring to the subject matter here. The film feels personal, both in what Noxon includes in her screenplay and how closely she follows Collin’s Ellen and those she befriends at the inpatient facility. It also helps that at no point does Collins’ performance feel gimmicky or over-the-top. Yes, Collins physically transforms herself into a gaunt figure (without getting all Christian Bale on us), but it’s what she conveys internally that will transfix viewers, providing an understanding of how one can be physically, emotionally and mentally crippled by such an illness.

There are moments in “To the Bone” that feel familiar and some scenes that shouldn’t work on paper, yet  work surprisingly well delivered by the actors here. It’s not too surprising to see Dr. Beckham take his patients on a field trip to an art gallery, but what takes place there is a tender sequence of healing. Likewise, a powerful scene between Taylor and Collins near the film’s conclusion just shouldn’t work, but it’s absolutely heartbreaking to behold. These are just a couple of scenes that confirm an appreciation and impressive confidence in the care Noxon and Collins inject in this revealing feature. Throughout the film, we are always aware of the stakes, which is that Ellen can wither away and die, something she doesn’t want, yet also something she’s finding it harder and harder to turn around.

Noxon, who’s written a slew of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes (and served as co-writer on the screenplays for “I Am Number Four” and “Fright Night“) manages to deftly balance the tone of “To the Bone”, never getting too much of a downer as it also maintains an impressive lightness without feeling cloying or quirky.

 

RATING: ***

 

To The Bone

 

 

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