Can you make a movie about eat­ing dis­or­ders with­out glam­or­iz­ing them?

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - BETHONIE BUT­LER

“To the Bone” doesn’t come out un­til July 14, but a trailer for the Net­flix film — about a young woman’s strug­gle with anorexia ner­vosa — has al­ready been get­ting mixed re­views.

Part drama, part dark com­edy, “To the Bone” stars Lily Collins as Ellen, a young woman who, af­ter mul­ti­ple stays in in-pa­tient treat­ment pro­grams, grudg­ingly agrees to live in a group home run by an un­con­ven­tional doc­tor (Keanu Reeves). It pre­mièred to gen­er­ally pos­i­tive re­views at this year’s Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, where Net­flix pur­chased the global rights for a re­ported $8 mil­lion.

Net­flix posted the trailer on June 20, prompt­ing an in­tense Twit­ter de­bate around whether the film glam­or­izes anorexia and whether it could be harm­ful or a trig­ger for those with eat­ing dis­or­ders. The com­pany sparked a sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tion in April af­ter re­leas­ing the drama se­ries “13 Rea­sons Why,” which caused con­cern for its graphic de­pic­tion of a teenager’s sui­cide.

Di­rec­tor Marti Noxon and sup­port­ers of the film say it’s an au­then­tic de­par­ture from the slew of made-for-TV movies and TV show sub­plots that have made eat­ing dis­or­ders look like trends in­stead of life-threat­en­ing ill­nesses. But the trailer shows el­e­ments of the film — Ellen tick­ing off calo­rie counts for the items on her din­ner plate, a closeup of her ex­tremely thin frame — that high­light the chal­lenge of por­tray­ing eat­ing dis­or­ders on­screen in a re­spon­si­ble way.

Crit­ics of the trailer have ze­roed in on the film’s pro­tag­o­nist: a young, thin, white woman with anorexia, a pre­vail­ing nar­ra­tive in pop cul­ture de­spite the fact that eat­ing dis­or­ders vary (binge-eat­ing dis­or­der is ac­tu­ally the most com­mon eat­ing dis­or­der in the United States) and af­fect peo­ple of all back­grounds.

“It re­in­forces stereo­types about what an eat­ing dis­or­der is and looks like,” one sur­vivor told Teen Vogue. “That im­agery is ev­ery­where, and it is ac­tu­ally cel­e­brated in our cul­ture.”

Noxon, the vet­eran writer-pro­ducer be­hind “Girl­friends’ Guide to Di­vorce,” “Un­real” and later episodes of “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer,” based the film on her own bat­tle with anorexia and bu­limia, which be­gan in her early teens.

She was aware of the film’s po­ten­tial to be a trig­ger for some peo­ple and, as a re­sult, tried to be “re­ally con­sci­en­tious in the way we ap­proached how (Ellen) looked, how of­ten we showed her body and in what con­text.”

“You want to help other peo­ple un­der­stand and have com­pas­sion for some­thing they’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced, but you also want peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­enced it to feel un­der­stood and seen and to give peo­ple hope,” she added. “At the same time we want it to be en­ter­tain­ing, so we were bal­anc­ing a lot.”

Noxon wanted to avoid one trope in par­tic­u­lar: “this idea that the per­fec­tion­ist qual­ity of anorex­ics is their most defin­ing trait,” she said. It’s some­thing she saw in a char­ac­ter with anorexia (played by “To the Bone” ac­tress Ciara Bravo) in Fox’s short-lived dram­edy “Red Band So­ci­ety.”

“I ap­pre­ci­ated their at­tempt to in­cor­po­rate that as a real prob­lem and a real ill­ness,” said Noxon, who watched the se­ries with her now 12year-old daugh­ter. But, she added, “it didn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel that the per­son writ­ing it had re­ally been through it.”

Noxon wrote “To the Bone” a few years ago, in­spired by an­other project (an early draft for the film adap­ta­tion of “The Glass Cas­tle”) that re­quired her to think a lot about her child­hood.

“It re­ally came back to me that I was still my­self,” Noxon said. “I think if you’ve re­cov­ered from a trau­matic ill­ness, men­tal or other­wise, some­times you just think of your­self as be­ing sick. But I re­mem­bered that I still had my per­son­al­ity. I still had a lot of hu­mour to me.”

That re­al­iza­tion gave Noxon a clear idea of how she wanted to ap­proach the film, which she wrote in just six weeks.

“The char­ac­ter was go­ing to have life to her. She wasn’t just one-di­men­sional,” Noxon said. “It wasn’t just about a sick per­son. It’s about a per­son strug­gling with her real demons.”

While “To the Bone” fo­cuses mainly on Ellen’s re­cov­ery, it fea­tures a woman of colour bat­tling an eat­ing dis­or­der and a male char­ac­ter with anorexia. Cyn­thia Bu­lik, found­ing di­rec­tor of the UNC Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence for Eat­ing Dis­or­ders, has not yet seen the film, but said those in­clu­sions are en­cour­ag­ing be­cause Hol­ly­wood and news out­lets of­ten fail to show that eat­ing dis­or­ders also af­fect peo­ple out­side of the stereo­type.

“Those peo­ple are less likely to seek treat­ment, they are less likely to be ac­cu­rately di­ag­nosed, be­cause they don’t fall within the stereo­typ­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion that their physi­cian might ex­pect,” Bu­lik said.

Bu­lik was among the col­lab­o­ra­tors on a doc­u­ment ti­tled “Nine Truths About Eat­ing Dis­or­ders,” which in­spired last year’s public ser­vice an­nounce­ment fea­tur­ing the cast and crew of “To the Bone.”

“Eat­ing dis­or­ders af­fect peo­ple of all gen­ders, ages, races, eth­nic­i­ties, body shapes, weights, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus,” Noxon says in the video.

Claire Mysko, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Eat­ing Dis­or­ders As­so­ci­a­tion, said she is en­cour­aged by the di­a­logue sparked by the trailer.

“Thirty mil­lion Amer­i­cans strug­gle with eat­ing dis­or­ders at some point in their lives,” Mysko said. “This is some­thing that needs to be talked about, and we need for peo­ple to un­der­stand that this isn’t a silly fad or some­thing that peo­ple choose.”

“To the Bone” be­gins stream­ing on Net­flix on July 14.


Lily Collins stars as Ellen, a young woman liv­ing with an eat­ing dis­or­der, in "To the Bone."

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