I was very, very afraid to watch To The Bone.
I watched the film a few days ago, gave myself time to process the thoughts and emotions I have, and have categorized those thoughts and feelings into four different sections: the script, the actors, the failures, and the triumphs.
DISCLAIMER: All opinions I have on To The Bone are coming from the perspective of someone who has struggled with Anorexia and Bulimia, and in the same way these illnesses and the experiences attached to them are unique to each person who deals with them, the feelings this film effect in me may be completely different from those who are also survivors of eating disorders. I am not here to give my side as to whether or not this movie glamorizes, fetishizes, or poeticizes eating disorders, because it may or may not depending on the individual. This is a simple review of the movie from one survivor’s perspective.
I think To The Bone‘s biggest challenge with its script was cheesiness. This makes me SO happy! The fact that my number one complaint isn’t “they got it all wrong!” or “they’re disrespecting survivors” but rather “stop dancing in the rain I’m cringing!” is, to me, a victory. The camp of some of the movie, the corn, whatever you want to call it–indicates to me that the writer and director Marti Nixon just didn’t really know how to write the awkward yet necessary scenes in every movie that deals with downfall and redemption. I’ve never seen one that didn’t have some element of cliche, so I’m not surprised nor disappointed by the fact that it was there. There is far more honesty and far more substance in the nonverbal parts of the screenplay than the verbal. That is, I think, how it should be. Eating disorders, and the feelings that come with them, are nearly impossible to put into words. Actions speak much, much louder.
Keanu Reeves sucks. He did a better job as Don Jon. That’s how bad he sucks in this movie.
Lily Collins was as respectful to her situation as an actress as she could have been. Again, it is not what she says that sell her performance, but what she doesn’t say, and what she does, and what she’s thinking. I’m probably making up things in my head, but that’s how it felt. When she was saying things that didn’t make sense or that weren’t logical or when she didn’t speak at all when you feel like she should have, I felt like I could see a million racing thoughts coming to a million dead ends and I got it.
The best acting in this film comes from two characters in particular: Ellen’s little sister Kelly (played by Liana Liberato) and the anything-equine obsessed inpatient Pearl (played by Maya Eshet). These two are my favorite characters in the movie by far, because of the honesty of their positions.
Liberato’s Kelly is casual, joking even, with her dying sister. This put some viewers off; how can a girl who knows her sister is slowly dying make jokes about “calorie Asberger’s”? (I’ll touch on problematic parts of this movie next.) Thinking in the grand scheme of things, however, it’s a totally realistic relationship. You can’t live with someone who is slowly dying and constantly have a grave disposition. When I was in the depths of my ED, my brothers and I never spoke of it. I knew they knew, and they knew that I knew that they knew (phew), but I only ever heard their responses through my parents. My mom is the one who told them, and my mom is the one who updated them during my recovery. The closest we ever came to speaking about it was a very loaded “call me if you need anything.” I’m incredibly thankful for this. I needed at least one familial relationship to be unaffected by my illness, and although my brothers and I don’t generally talk about anything serious, I was glad we could go on as if nothing was wrong for that period of time. Obviously my situation was not as medically severe as Ellen’s, nor is my relationship with my siblings as close as hers is with Kelly, but something about their interactions felt very right to me.
Eshet’s Pearl threw me off at first. We are introduced to her as Ellen’s roommate in the inpatient house, and her room looks as though a My Little Pony exploded. She is scraggly, awkward, and upon first impression seems to be the “weird” character every comedy has. I did not have much hope for her or the movie at this point. A few scenes later, however, she finds out that her new drip is a whopping 1500 calories, thanks to Ellen. This causes her to become fidgety and forces her to flee the dinner table in fear. It’s hard to watch her suffer like that, knowing there’s nothing she can do to stop that. From my point of view, that fear is so incredibly real and tangible and I think Eshet’s portrayal of it was totally spot on.
This movie is a prime example of the “one battle at a time” film. “One battle at a time” films are ones that I think do a great job of bringing awareness to a single perspective, but strays from any intersectionality. This film in particular chooses not only to use basic ignorant jargon considering the LGBTQ community, but also to ignore the issue of the mental health of people of color and their families. Halfway through the movie, Ellen changes her name to Eli, in order to assume a new identity as someone who isn’t sick, and who isn’t connected to the messed up dynamic of her family. Upon telling her friend/love interest/fellow inpatient Luke (played by Alex Sharp), he responds with “this doesn’t mean you’re gay, does it?…the male population cannot stand another quality defection.” Yikes. Unnecessary, and uncool.
The only (and by only I mean the ONLY) people of color in the movie are an inpatient with binging disorder (Lindsey McDowell) and the inpatient house’s caregiver Lobo (Retta). Both of these characters are one dimensional with simple roles and tiny comedic one-liners. The movie completely fails to represent POC mental health. Again, though, in the same way my disclaimer presses that this is the perspective of one person, we have to remember that the movie itself is based on one person’s story as well, and that we can’t expect everything of a movie especially if it’s going to get so fragile a topic as eating disorders right. I’m letting it slide, for now.
I also have some feelings about the relationship between Ellen and Luke.
I appreciate that they decided to add a sort of love story to the mix. There are a lot of little details about eating disorders that heavily affect romantic relationships. I myself was in a relationship during my battle with anorexia and it got to the point where I was afraid to be touched, not focused on my partner, and keeping secrets from him. It was really hard, really unhealthy, and really unfair. I appreciate the fact that they decided to comment on that experience a little as well. My problem with the relationship between Ellen and Luke is the lack of consent present in all their physical interactions. Throughout the movie the viewer feels Luke pushing Ellen in all directions; some of these she needs, and some of these she doesn’t. There is one scene, however, that upset me. Ellen opens up to Luke about past sexual harassment and his response is “you need to be touched by someone who cares about you,” and then proceeds to kiss her without asking. Dude: what? What she deserves is to be able to choose who touches her and who doesn’t, which makes you just as bad as everyone she just told you about. Ridiculous. Later, when Ellen storms out of the inpatient program, he tells her she has to stay because “you’re the thing keeping me alive.” How dare you? She is about to die too, and she’s also not a thing, and you can’t depend on someone like that, healthy or not. So done with him.
Okay, I’ve been ragging on this movie so far here and there, so I want to talk about the parts that were really and truly great.
I know I’m not here to talk about this, but I do have to mention it. To The Bone directly addresses the issue of fetishization and glamorization of eating disorders with its storyline. We learn throughout the film that Ellen had a fairly popular art Tumblr that featured her drawings of extremely thin girls and other aspects of her own eating disorder. One girl was such a big “fan” of her art that she sent Ellen her own suicide note, and her parents sent pictures of the girls cuts to Ellen to let her know exactly what “she had done.” It’s an ugly story, painful to even think about. Nothing about Ellen’s body is glamorized, and nothing to do with her or her fellow inpatients’ eating disorders are shown as anything but hurtful and unhealthy. Of course there are risks with depicting it at all; any images of eating disorders can be triggering for some depending on their mental state at the time. But to not tell the stories of people with ED is the same as to pretend that they don’t exist.
I have a love/hate relationship with all the adults in this movie, which is I think one of the most accurate things Noxon did. I know that they’re confused and that they’re trying their best, but they never seem to do the right thing and they are always just trying to make things go back to normal at the end of the day, which feels insulting. This is how I felt about practically every adult in my life during my bout with ED. Nobody understood why I couldn’t “just eat,” why I couldn’t just be compliant, why it didn’t matter that I knew what I was doing was wrong, but that I couldn’t stop. I loved them for trying, I hated them for everything they tried, and I felt like it was all my fault. I don’t know if this comes across to those watching who have not have had an eating disorder, but although my family situation was not as tumultuous as hers was, the feeling towards all adult figures was the same.
The bottle feeding scene is powerful. I don’t care if it really did anything or if it made sense or not, but it made me absolutely bawl. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
The most honest part of this movie is at the very end. There is no happy tied-up ending where Ellen is a healthy weight and eating happily and everything is fixed. Rather, as Vox puts it, “there’s no magic cure. Even hitting bottom doesn’t ensure she’ll recover. But what To the Bone is certain of is that without the conviction that she deserves to live, she’ll never get better. That conviction resounds with truth — and it’s vital even when an eating disorder isn’t in the picture.”
The movie ends with Ellen’s conscious decision to try to live, and thus begins her true recovery. This reinforces that an eating disorder doesn’t just end: it nips at your heels and it tugs at your brain for years and years even after you stop. I stopped going to therapy four years ago, been two and a half years clean of purging, and I still skip meals here and there. It never stops, and to depict this movie ending in any other way than acknowledging that fact is to do an injustice to us as survivors.
This film definitely has its flaws. I do, however, think that a lot of criticism comes from people who have either A) not seen the movie, B) actually lived with one of these disorders, or C) both. Something about To The Bone touches a part of me I never thought I’d see on the big screen, thoughts and feelings I never thought I’d re-experience, all without forcing me to relive any of the pain. This movie reminded me of my past–not in a bad way, but in a way that makes me feel understood and that reminds me of both the ugly and of the redemptive. I didn’t know I needed it, but I’m so glad I have it now. I do recommend.
Again, I want to stress that all opinions in this review are mine and mine alone. I can only speak to other survivors of eating disorders to a limited extent, and someone with similar experience may have a completely opposite reaction as me. It is totally dependent on the individual, and I am only one.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please tell a trusted adult and/or contact the National Eating Disorder Association at (800) 931-2237 or live chat on their website.
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