Writer and director Marti Noxon struggled with anorexia and bulimia for 10 years. It’s her story, albeit a fictionalized version, that she tells in “To The Bone,” a feature film coming to Netflix on Friday about a 20-year-old artist whose eating disorder has reached a dire point. Lily Collins, who herself has a history with eating disorders, plays the main character Ellen.
“I didn’t remember seeing a feature film that dealt with this,” Noxon said recently in a joint interview with Collins. “I felt like it was high time there was a more authentic look at it, something that felt more genuine. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding of it. People make the mistake of thinking it’s all about vanity run amok.”
The depiction of eating disorders, and specifically anorexia, in film and on television has a troubled history. In feature films, we’ve seen it fetishized as Natalie Portman’s perfectionist ballerina coos over half of a grapefruit in “Black Swan,” exploited as an emaciated patient wails that “74 pounds is the perfect weight” in “Girl, Interrupted,” satirized with Barbie dolls in “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and played for comedic effect when in the black comedy “Drop Dead Gorgeous” a skeletal and wheelchair-bound beauty pageant contestant rolls out on stage to lip synch “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” On television, interpretations are usually of the maudlin and melodramatic variety — Lifetime films about broken homes and obsessive teenage girls where tears and death are a guarantee.
And most of the time, it’s about a young, white, underweight female.
For these reasons and the sensitivities of those who have or are suffering from eating disorders, “To the Bone” has already provoked passionate responses. Critics latched on to a trailer and picked it apart for its potential to trigger and a worry that it could glamorize eating disorders or be used as “thinspiration.” It was also lampooned for focusing on “another middle class white woman.”
Its put Collins and Noxon in the position of having to be defensive before the film is even out. Both say they hope audiences respond to its more nuanced and complex portrait of the illness and the various ways in which it can manifest. For instance, there’s a woman of color in the treatment center, as well as a man. As fellow survivors, they were extremely careful in just how they wanted to bring the story to life.
Noxon consulted with specialists who treat eating disorders during the script phase and, as a result, never includes mention of Ellen’s weight or goal weight — in fact, numbers aren’t discussed — and only once shows the character’s full body. Numbers, she said, can stick in people’s heads and become aspirational.
“We didn’t want it to be gratuitous in any way,” Collins said. “Neither Marti nor I having experienced this would ever set out to make a movie that fetishized, encouraged or glamourized this disorder.”
Ellen, who is witty, vibrant and darkly funny, is also not the kind of tragic heroine you might recognize from other depictions.
While some 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), it remains an illness that is widely misunderstood.
“For us as an organization, we’re very interested in raising the profile of eating disorders as a serious public health issue,” said NEDA CEO Claire Mysko. “Having eating disorders discussed on a national platform like this is really important.”
NEDA participated in a public service announcement “Nine Truths About Eating Disorders “ with the “To the Bone” cast, but had no involvement in the actual film. Representatives have encouraged Netflix to include resources for help in its rollout.
An organization that has supported “To the Bone” is the eating disorder non-profit Project HEAL, which has hosted screenings and discussions of the film.
Project HEAL co-founders Kristina Saffran and Liana Rosenman hoped to help the filmmakers deliver a responsible message about eating disorders and provide accurate information and resources.
“It’s pretty groundbreaking,” Saffran said. “It’s extremely hard to make a movie about eating disorders that really gets to the reality of the disorder and how serious and challenging and life-threatening these disorders can be without glamourizing them. ‘To the Bone’ does an amazing job of striking that balance.”
Writer-director Marti Noxon’s deeply moving feature debut, “To the Bone ,” isn’t just about a young woman confronting anorexia; it’s a story about coming to terms with the ridiculous, awkward, beautiful and painful realities of adult life.
The film presents eating disorders almost like a form of addiction. Keanu Reeves plays Dr Beckham, whose approach is to encourage patients to decide for themselves what their future lives should look like. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, he reveals one of adulthood’s great and troubling secrets.
“Things don’t all add up,” he says. “But you are resilient. Face some hard facts and you could have an incredible life.”
And right there is why this film is universal, even if you’re not a young person with an eating disorder. Growing up means realizing that life isn’t always fair and there’s no guarantee that everything will be all right. Eli literally shrinks away from this truth.
Collins and some of the other actresses are so painfully thin that parts of the film are uncomfortable to watch. It’s also hard to see the young characters so tormented and consumed with body image. One describes a famous (and unquestionably thin) actress as “kind of fat, don’t you think? Like at least a size 6.”
But the story is not all bleak. Noxon, a veteran writer and producer of such TV hits as “UnREAL,” “Mad Men,” “Glee” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” deftly manages her film’s tone, blending humor and heart without being saccharine or trite. She treats Eli’s struggles seriously but not too earnestly, a delicate balance obviously aided by the loving perspective of personal experience.
The film’s optimism shines through in a magical sequence set inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Rain Room” exhibit. Beckham takes his patients on a field trip there, and their experience of the space where water miraculously rains down from the ceiling but doesn’t get visitors wet is a cinematic metaphor for the delicious thrill of discovery — a perk of being alive. (Agencies)
“To the Bone” is a beautiful achievement. It illuminates the compulsions and dangers around disordered eating — a potentially deadly condition that affects 30 million Americans — and the struggles of so many teens and adults who channel their concerns and fears about life into hatred of their own bodies. It gives voice to the experience of girls, who are rarely prepared for the onslaught of male attention that comes with puberty and adolescence. It underscores the importance of family, however dysfunctional. It’s a story about the difficulty of being human and the bravery it takes to grow up.
“To the Bone,” a Netflix release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 107 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four. (Agencies)
By Lindsey Bahr