Overview: A young woman works at managing her anorexia nervosa in an unconventional group home. Netflix; 2017; Rated TV-MA; 107 minutes.
Body Horror: Elements of To the Bone were like watching body horror: watching Keanu Reeves’s character examine Lily Collins’s bony, bruised spine made my skin crawl. Collins, who has battled with eating disorders in the past, lost a considerable amount of weight for her role as Ellen, and its efficacy was not lost on me. Ellen is so thin that it looks physically painful, a feature that’s emphasized by her yelps of pain as she obsessively does sit-ups to burn more calories. Other patients grapple with the limits of their bodies as well: Luke (Alex Sharp) is a former ballet dancer with a career-ending knee injury, Megan (Leslie Bibb) is a longtime battler of eating disorders who miraculously becomes pregnant, and Pearl (Maya Eshet) is a young girl who’s so ill that she’s on a feeding tube to survive. For someone like myself, this film helped me better visualize what life might be like if one had an eating disorder, but to others who have struggled, it may be triggering. An acquaintance who battles eating disorders was averse to watching the film, which I found interesting. But, as someone who’s lived through my own traumas, I could see how a dramatization of such a serious issue might not be very appealing for me to experience. Additionally, the film seems to focus solely on anorexia nervosa and not the variety of other eating disorders that others contend with; while the film was based on writer and director Marti Noxon’s personal experiences, it would have been a good opportunity to clarify that extreme thinness from anorexia is not the only look of an eating disorder.
Finding Your Strength: Though I’ve never struggled with anorexia nervosa, many parts of To The Bone struck me in ways I was not expecting. I’ve battled my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, mechanisms that put me in harmful situations where I caused damage to myself and others. I think that many of us can identify with those struggles; feeling numb is great when life is hard and confusing and messy. Feeling numb is great when figuring yourself out can feel like uphill climb over broken glass. But being numb just delays pain—and delays joy, too. That’s what Ellen begins to discover in To The Bone, when she’s sent to a unique group home in a last-ditch effort to save her life. Having been shuttled in and out of in-patient programs, Ellen knows the clinical approach to recovery that seems to be the norm. As she snarks her way through each expensive and extensive program, her illness continues to rapidly eat away at her. However, in the group home, she’s forced to finally decide: does she want to change?
While this film may not be the best primer on EDs, there are larger takeaways from it. Growing up sucks, growing up with trauma sucks even more. But ultimately, only you can decide if you want to hold on to the poison of those traumas to define yourself—or worse, kill you slowly. When Ellen first meets Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves), he tells her, “I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living.” Ellen says she is, but her initial actions indicate otherwise, even when she’s listening to the genuine pleas of her younger sister asking her to just try this time. For much of the movie, it can be hard to like Ellen. But I also know that I’ve been Ellen—unaware and unwilling to move past my own hurt and dysfunction to see how much I was hurting those close to me, even the people who’d hurt me first. I didn’t like Ellen sometimes because I identified so much with Ellen: she is a girl, like myself, who is so lost in her own pain that she’d forgotten her fight.
Towards the end of the film, Dr. Beckham has a moment with Ellen (who changes her name to Eli) where he essentially tells her to toughen up and understand that everyone struggles. Of course, Eli is infuriated, but it’s the catalyst she needs to start her true journey to recovery. I’ve heard that from a therapist myself, and while it can feel like a slap in the face, it’s often what can help a sinking ship reverse its course. When a character reads Anne Sexton’s poem “Courage,”it hit a nerve with me. It reminded me of my own journey to find my inner courage, and the fight to keep that “small coal” burning on the days that are the toughest.
Overall: To The Bone is an important watch. While it may not be perfect, it resonates with anyone who’s faced their own demons as a young adult—and made the choice to conquer them, every day.
Featured Image: Netflix
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