TO THE BONE

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - HELEN O’HARA VERDICT The strong writ­ing and per­for­mances strip away the noise around anorexia and leave a sen­si­tively han­dled and pow­er­ful in­die drama that’s not just for teenagers.

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.

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