TO THE BONE
SHOWRUNNER Marti Noxon CAST Lily Collins, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Keanu Reeves, Alex Sharp, Retta, Liana Liberato
PLOT Ellen’s (Collins) struggles with anorexia have taken her out of college and numerous treatment programmes. Her family sends her to Threshold, an unconventional new programme run by Dr Beckham (Reeves) that may be her last chance.
UNTIL NOW, THE screen has treated anorexia and eating disorders as the stuff of melodrama rather than a mental illness worthy of serious discussion. Blame the perception that it’s a young women’s disease, perhaps, or Hollywood’s own twisted body issues. But Marti Noxon’s debut feature corrects that oversight, taking a low-key, darkly comic approach that focuses on character first and illness second.
Both writer-director Noxon and star Lily Collins have suffered eating disorders, so it is no surprise that they take a nuanced view of their subject matter. In the very first scene this film makes clear that it will not simply pin eating disorders on the media, yet it also gives short shrift to the pro-ana movement’s argument that this illness is a personal choice and nothing to worry about. Some feared, after seeing the trailer, that this would glamorise eating disorders, but while it’s not scatological, there’s no beauty in these achingly thin bodies and feeding tubes.
The disease is not the person, and all the sufferers on Dr Beckham’s (Reeves) residential programme feel like distinct individuals. They’re just divorced from reality: after seeing a movie they discuss whether the star, who is “at least a size six”, is “fat” or “just big-boned”. They obsess over fantasy stories but hide Tupperware boxes of vomit under their beds.
Collins’ anorexia sufferer Ellen seems to survive chiefly off her own simmering fury. She lashes out at the world, at her family, at her disease — but most of all at herself, and that corrosive anger leaves her with a knobbly, bruised spine and the shadowed cheeks of the starving. Yet it’s the insecurity that Collins allows to peek out underneath, and the obvious awareness of her own desperate straits, that draws empathy and not pity. Ellen knows all the facts but can’t quite stop her own self-destruction. Anorexia, in her case, is not about looking a certain way but taking control in an uncertain world, only to find that it leaves you more out of control than ever.
Opposite her, Reeves calmly underplays Dr Beckham, a nice contrast to the younger cast’s angst but also to all those inspirational movie doctors who offer pat solutions to complicated problems. His treatment is not a magic bullet for Ellen’s situation; all he offers her are some reality checks. “Hospitals are for sick people. We’re here to get over that shit.”
Most of the film’s other adults, in contrast, talk in therapy-approved circles and walk on eggshells. Carrie Preston’s desperately caring stepmother tries to offer Ellen support but seems perpetually terrified of making things worse. “Be good,” she says, dropping Ellen at the residential programme, only to add, “Not too good! Not perfect!” Birth mother Lili Taylor is more hippy-dippy, giving us one of the film’s most awkwardly comic yet strangely moving scenes.
Noxon’s direction is generally unshowy, allowing the cast and dialogue to shine, but she does cut loose with a visit to LACMA’S Rain Room, a scene that screams “indie movie”, and in a desert-set finale. She also refuses to tie things up in a neat bow — there is a twinkle of romance between Ellen and a fellow patient, but it’s not a love that will “save” them, just a complication. The only victory here is realising there’s no happy ending and struggling on anyway, a message that is not only applicable in cases of anorexia but to all the rest of us as well.