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FILM REVIEW: To the Bone

FILM REVIEW: To the Bone

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October 15, 2021

Thanks to Jaya Upadhyay, a 2021 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

To the Bone (2017), a Netflix film, opens with two potent sequences. The first is a scene in which two stick-like figures emerge from the backdrop and approach the screen. These are women engaged in an eating disorder treatment program where the lead character, Ellen (Lily Collins) is enrolled. The second scene shows Ellen being weighed in her underclothes while her step mother Susan (Carrie Preston) questions her, “Do you think that’s beautiful?” These visuals aesthetically introduce the subject that the film is about to discuss. The film is notable because it not only follows the primary character’s journey from suffering to recovery, but also from denial to acceptance of her situation as something that needs to be remedied. It is not cluttered with melancholy states of persons with disorders, but instead depicts these folks in everyday situations, joking, hanging out, even enjoying a baby shower, and so on. This technique, utilized by director Marti Noxon, is impressive in that it does not put the narrative inside a box and tag it, but instead puts it on a sort of picture board. With the exception of the romance sub plot, which becomes a distraction, one may give the film a thumbs up for not veering into tedium or melodrama.

When Ellen is expelled from the first treatment program due to her belligerent attitude, Susan coaxes her to try again, this time with an unconventional medical practitioner, Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves). She enters “Threshold,” – an in-patient facility that is a part of the doctor’s treatment – only because opposing it would have resulted in her being kicked out of her father’s house. Judy (Lili Taylor), Ellen’s mother, is introduced during a family therapy session at the facility. She lives at a horse therapy farm in Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith). It is the only scene in the film where we see high drama, with Susan and Judy accusing each other of being responsible for Ellen’s condition. Judy, who previously abandoned Ellen, appears helpless. In fact, her abandonment may have even been a catalyst toward Ellen’s anorexia. Ellen’s stepmother, Susan, on the other hand, has good intentions for her, but she expresses them unflatteringly, attributing her troubles to the fact that her mother is a lesbian. She and another character, Luke (Alex Sharp), contribute a lot of levity to the film; he with his typical antics, and Susan, notably with her giant cheeseburger shaped cake that says, “Eat it up, Ellen.” Ellen’s half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato), is the only one who does not seem to bother her. In fact, according to Dr. Beckham, she is the only one who does not have an entirely self-serving narrative around Ellen’s condition. Her sole complaint is that she does not get to have a sister.

Within the film, Threshold introduces Ellen’s fellow patients, including one with a feeding tube, a girl with her barf stockpile beneath her bed, and a pregnant female with anorexia. Surprisingly, save for mealtime, the in-patient home is not a depressing environment. The patients even have an inside joke about calling the dining area the torture chamber. They have group therapy sessions once a week and earn points for chores. Except for Luke, a ballet performer whose illness is a result of his leg injury, their individual experiences are not explored in the film. He serves as a foil to Ellen. He is zesty, funny, and often silly, whereas Ellen is jaded and guarded. Their tale provides a sub-narrative to the film. There is what may vaguely be regarded as a romance between them. It may be the film’s single flaw. Romance aside, Luke is a crucial character since he serves as the voice of wisdom for Ellen.

Dr. Beckham is an unconventional doctor. His methods of treating his patients include taking them to an artificial rain art installation and even making them read “Courage,” one of Anne Sexton’s famous poems. His personal narrative remains absent from the film except in a brief scene when he tells Ellen that he likes to focus on his work to the exclusion of all else. The film reaches a climax when the pregnant girl at Threshold loses her baby to purging. Ellen’s little progress comes crashing down when she begins to doubt the therapy’s efficacy, and she leaves Threshold for her mother’s place at Phoenix. The last few scenes, in which she is meandering through her dreamscapes are significant in understanding the growth of her character and why she chooses to improve at long last.

To the Bone does not try to get to the root cause of Ellen’s illness, though the viewer gets a handful of hints. The director’s intention does not appear to be to solve the mystery, and the film is not a mystery. It is laudable for shedding light on how psychological issues like OCD interact with anorexia. Beyond a point, it is not so much about remaining thin as it is about the euphoria that comes from starving oneself. Several scenes peer into the mind of a person suffering from a disorder. The dimly lit and sepia tones in those shots create a haunting atmosphere reminiscent of an obsessive environment within one’s mind. Without being didactic, the film raises awareness of a serious condition.

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