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Review: To the Bone (2017)

To the Bone (2017)

Directed by: Marti Noxon

Premise: A young woman coping with an eating disorder (Lily Collins) enters into a rehabilitation facility overseen by an unconventional doctor (Keanu Reeves).

What Works: There is a whole genre of movies about young people with diseases. These films are typically about cancer or other familiar medical conditions and how the young patient copes with the pain and treatment. To the Bone straddles the sick teenager genre with the addiction story and comes up with a compelling portrait of young people coping with eating disorders. The keys to success in stories like this are giving the audience insight into the experience of patients and portraying them as people who are more than just their disease or addiction. To the Bone does that pretty well. The story centers upon Ellen, played by Lily Collins, a young woman who is struggling with anorexia and is combative toward any attempt at treatment. Collins is terrific in the part and this may be the best performance of her career so far. The actress and the film walk a tightrope between making the character acerbic without making her unlikable. Ellen is caustic and occasionally mean but she is also a complex character who remains empathetic. Her behavior is contextualized by the portrait of her family who don’t understand her and say aggravatingly stupid things about this young woman’s condition. Ellen enters an in-patient treatment program where she is joined by a clique of other young people coping with similar issues. All of the characters feel genuine and unique and the film portrays them as more than just their eating disorders. To the Bone also features Keanu Reeves in a supporting performance as the doctor who heads the treatment program. Reeves’ understated acting style makes him a good fit for the role. This film gets to the psychosis motivating this woman but it doesn’t resort to over the top sentimentality in order to emphasize her pain. Instead, To the Bone gets at something more nuanced and familiar to most people’s experience – the pain of existence. The doctor and the film don’t assure their patents that recovery means a life free of pain or fear but rather a commitment to keep on living. That’s a slightly different view of addiction and recovery than is usually presented in the movies.

What Doesn’t:  To the Bone was the source of some criticism upon its release with the film’s detractors claiming that it made light of eating disorders. It’s true that the lead character has a flippant attitude but that is a defense mechanism to avoid facing the seriousness of her problem. That’s evident from the outset and as the film goes on that contrast becomes ever more apparent. That said, To the Bone can be criticized for oversimplifying recovery. This is a pitfall of all addiction narratives, especially those presented through cinema. Film has a limited ability to portray internal experiences and that can make recovery seem simplistic. The filmmaking of To the Bone is occasionally amateurish. The camera placement is sometimes awkward, the sound is occasionally hollow, and the lighting has a washed out naturalism. The intent seems to be to give To the Bone a realistic and spontaneous style but it paradoxically makes the film look artificial.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: To the Bone is a distinct take on the addiction story. It deals with some difficult topics and manages to make them accessible without inspiring false hope. To the Bone is a flawed movie but it addresses its topic without pretension or glamorizing eating disorders.

Episode: #695 (April 22, 2018)