Even Keanu Reeves Can’t Save You: To The Bone

To The Bone

I initially wanted to watch Netflix’s To The Bone because I wanted to understand how to help my friends who have eating disorders. And I really like Lily Collins. We have similar eyebrows.

As news came out about the film, though, it became even more intriguing. Suddenly it was controversial. Should Collins, who struggled with anorexia as a teenager, have lost weight for the role? Didn’t that put her at risk? Is depicting eating disorders going to trigger those who struggle with them? Does it glamorize them? And should Netflix be making movies anyway? Aren’t movies only for theaters and big studios?

But once I actually pushed “play” on To The Bone all of the controversy melted away. I was instantly engrossed by the story of Ellen (played by Collins), a 20 year old with anorexia nervosa who has tried seemingly everything. Her last hope, a group home led by the unconventional Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) may be what she needs, but Ellen isn’t even sure if she wants to get better.

The first thing that is striking about To The Bone is that it is very insider-baseball. The dialogue and details in the film could only have been made by someone who had close experience with eating disorders. And it turns out it was. Writer and director Marti Noxon has struggled with eating disorders. That means that with her and star Collins, the whole production was creatively led by women who had intimate insights into the psychology of eating disorders. They know what they’re talking about, and the film does, too.

But this made me feel misled. I thought I was going to watch a film about solutions. And while there are some suggested, it’s not what the film is about. It’s a message to fellow victims of eating disorders, not to the people around them. Noxon’s message is about choosing to change. Choosing to try, and choosing to live.

Because it’s such a life-affirming film, it is forced to  walk a tricky balance between being cheesy and being truthful. It mostly walks the line well, but sometimes it stumbles. Some critics have critiqued the film in the moments where it goes “inspirational,” and a character comments on it (like, “you’re trying to make us love life, Doctor”). These critics say the film uses bathos. Heck, I’ve criticized films for doing that. But I don’t think it is a problem here.

The difference is that To the Bone is making a statement. The inspirational, life-is-beautiful moments do not change the character. Therefore, when the character comments on it and has a snarky remark, it’s not the writer bailing out on a scene- it’s the movie saying to its audience, “We understand that people say this stuff to you and it isn’t working.” If this were a film that was just using bathos, the character would comment, but still be affected by the inspirational moment.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that no one person is able to make Ellen want to live. It’s a lot of things, but ultimately, it’s her decision.

That’s an idea I haven’t seen on screen recently, and it’s a lot better than the European-vacation-romance-makes-me-want-to-live story shown in book/movies like Me Before You and The Fault in Our Stars.

Noxon and Collins pull the curtain back on the mind of a person with an eating disorder. It’s not the sunset beaches or cool museums or kisses that are going to save them. They’ll probably call you out on it, as Ellen does to the well-intended characters in the film. It’s a personal choice, and it’s one that the film asks its intended audience to make.

As someone who doesn’t struggle with eating disorders, I can’t say whether To The Bone would be troubling for some. It is an unflinching look at what eating disorders do to the body, the soul, and the lives of loved ones. It’s also a well-acted and thoughtful film, with one of the coolest metaphorical baptism scenes I have ever seen.  If you watch it, watch it with discretion, but I think it is worth anyone’s time.

-Madeleine D

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Thanks, Dad : The Glass Castle

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*Light spoilers ahead

I’m going to be honest. If there is one trope I don’t get tired of, it’s the crazy father trope. I love it in my books, I love it in my movies, and it’s nothing new in our culture. All the best villains and heroes have daddy issues (Luke, I am your father, anyone?). I’ve always found the trope fascinating. Maybe because of its insight into human psychology and how Freudian it can be. Maybe because it feels so removed from me personally, as I have a wonderful father who loves me enough to edit this review. Either way, it’s always been intriguing.

But this film with its eccentric father isn’t dealing with fiction. This is real life. Based on Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name about her tumultuous childhood under an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, The Glass Castle juggles tragedy wrapped up in childhood innocence. Hearing a story like that is a reminder that this archetype has roots in very real, dark places.

Something I admired when I read Wall’s memoir was the matter-of-factness the book had. When describing her childhood, Walls never indulged in sentimentality or despair. Instead, she told the events through the eyes of her childhood self. Traumatic events were sometimes viewed as exciting adventures when framed to her by her father. The realization of how abusive her situation was came later. Walls never diminished what happened, but instead put it into perspective. It was clear to me while reading that Walls never let her upbringing become excuses, which is very admirable.

There is that quality in this film, too, until the end. Up until then, the scenes of Walls’ childhood play out with a lack of exploitation. When her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) explains to Jeanette (played as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, played as an adult by Brie Larson) that sneaking out of a hospital is an exciting adventure, there is playful music because that is how child Jeanette is perceiving it. When an older Jeanette realizes her father stole her college money, the scene is darker and the music is gone, because Jeanette has matured enough to understand the true situation. Any reflections on the events take place in the adult-Jeanette scenes, which is how the memoir is written. I liked how the story, for the most part, let it speak for itself. It would be very tempting to do the opposite, especially in a story like this that deals with children.

All of this subtlety falters near the end, though, when director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton gets antsy and decides the audience can’t figure out the metaphors for themselves. Brie Larson is saddled with having to explain the glass castle metaphor from the title, the similarities between Jeanette and Rex, the strengths of the family, the power of forgiveness, the complexities of fatherhood, and so on. It’s a shame, because I think the movie does such a good job letting the story find its own significance and importance, without having to assert it in a preachy manner.

The performances elevate the script, though, and Brie Larson and the rest of the cast are up to the task of the more heavy-handed moments. I haven’t seen Room, so I finally got to see Ms. Larson and how good of an actress she is. I’m definitely ready for her to play Captain Marvel.

Woody Harrelson is the other star, though, and he is phenomenal. There are a lot of times he could have chewed scenery and done very Woody Harrelson-y things, but he never does. He dances between manic and sober, enlightening and pessimistic in every scene, but it never rings false. His unpredictability keeps the film and the audience on their toes, making the story feel even more real. The child actors also are all fantastic.

The ending aside, whether you learn the story of the Walls family through the excellent memoir or the good film, it’s still a story worth taking to heart. It is a discussion of nature versus nurture, the importance of parents and their influence, the resilience of children, and the ultimate power of hope and forgiveness. It is also a reminder that earthly fathers may fail, but there is one who does not.

-Madeleine D