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.