Dissecting Netflix's To The Bone
Feels on Reels Column
by: J. G.
We don’t walk into a movie with amnesia. Like it or not, we come armed with context that distances us from the narrative. Try as I might, when I see Keanu as the psychiatrist, there’s a man with sunglasses and a trench coat chasing a white rabbit in the recesses of my mind. And within Lily’s skeletal frame, I see shadows of Snow White. In the very best films, the story resonates, and I forget the person behind the character onscreen. But this was not my experience with To The Bone.
When I cued up Netflix’s dramedy about a young woman navigating anorexia, I was hyperaware of reality: here is a woman, who lost an unsettling amount of weight for the sake of a narrative. Is this a performance -- or insight into the throes of (monitored) starvation? Is this entertainment -- or a case study unmasking a complicated illness? What do you sacrifice in order to tell a powerful story? As I struggled with these questions, a deeper, much simpler question dug at my brain: why make this movie?
Let’s start at the beginning. Before two waifish girls blur into focus, we get the cautionary message: “This film was created by and with individuals who have struggled with eating disorders, and it includes realistic depictions that may be challenging for some viewers.”
To The Bone is the baby of writer/director Marti Noxon (of UnREAL and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) and is inspired by her battle with anorexia. Lily Collins has also written about her struggles with body image and a previous eating disorder in her memoir, Unfiltered. If To The Bone originated from personal experience and a desire to share the addictive grip of an eating disorder and the beauty in recovery—I understand. What troubles me, I suppose, is not why, but how the story is told.
Our heroine, 20-year-old Ellen, is a badass. She tells the world, “Suck my skinny balls,” and makes an Insta-worthy sketch of a pregnant unicorn. She attracts the attention of her peers at the group home; in particular, she catches the eye of the only male in the house, who hardcore crushes on her. More than this, Ellen—sorry, she changes her name to Eli because Ellen doesn’t suit her—has confidence. She knows who she is, or at least gives off the impression that she does. And nothing—from her concerned family to a Goo Goo Cluster—can get to her.
“You scare people,” Dr. Beckham says. “And I’m guessing you like that.” As he checks her heartbeat, we see the bruises along her spine: “trophies” from too many sit-ups. Her self-destructive, indefatigable behavior reminds me of an injured, underdog athlete striving toward the finish line. We know they’re hurting themselves, but there is something admirable in their resiliency. I don’t believe the film glorifies the eating disorder, but perhaps its glorification of the heroine makes the illness appear less ugly?
Okay, the joke about calorie Asperger’s is hilarious. But on the whole, I find humor problematizes the narrative. When every joke references eating disorders, you risk turning the subject into light fare. While not a perfect analog, the breadth of humor in The Fundamentals of Caring is why it works so well. In To The Bone, however, humor also defines the characters and their relationships with one another. Ellen’s dysfunctional family is caricatured (except her refreshingly honest sister), and her peers at the group home are figureheads for different types of eating disorders or have distracting quirks (one girl is obsessed with stuffed animal ponies). How can we expect Ellen to create meaningful relationships, which challenge her notions of strength and inspire her recovery, when she is surrounded by such flimsy outlines of individuals?
This brings me to her implied recovery. I say implied because we don’t see her healthy except in a dream sequence, which is triggered by physical exhaustion, hunger, and heat. In this vision, her kinda-maybe lover materializes and forces her to look at her body objectively. We see two contrasting Ellens: one healthy, in a cute dress and perfect makeup, sitting in a tree with the hallucinated Luke; another emaciated, naked, and sprawling on a rock. Quoting an Anne Sexton poem, Luke tells her, “Your courage is a small coal that you keep swallowing.” An actual piece of coal appears in Ellen’s hand: she swallows it and wakes up from the dream. “Not dead,” she whispers after taking her pulse. The next scene, a terribly sunburned Ellen returns to her family with a promise: “I’m gonna be okay.” Before we cut to the end credits, Ellen walks up to the group home with a resolute smile on her face.
But how are we to believe she will succeed after we spent nearly two hours watching her crave anorexia? How many times have we ourselves resolved to make a life change, only to continue business as usual the next day? And anorexia isn’t a habit, it’s an addiction; it’s tough to kick. There is a powerful story to be told in starting the narrative with Ellen at rock bottom and tracing her erratic ascent to health.
Verdict: Already undermined by context, To The Bone loses further ground by indulging in humor at the expense of its characters and their eating disorders, and ultimately misses the mark by not substantiating Ellen’s recovery.