This may contain spoilers.
As both a cinofile and an ex-anorexic, I feel it necessary to weigh in my opinion on the latest exposure of the hell that is living with an eating disorder; the hugely anticipated ‘To The Bone’. I am using my own, and friends’, experiences to evaluate the film not purely as a cinematic piece, but as a representation of anorexia.
The partly autobiographical film (based on writer Marti Noxon’s own experiences) follows Ellen (Lily Collins, who has struggled with EDs herself), a 20-year old artist who has been forced to drop out of college due to her resistance to recover. She ends up in the hands of the unorthodox Dr Beckham (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) with an interesting alternative to traditional recovery methods.
The main body of this film concentrates on representing the illness. Ellen becomes a ‘problem’, she is ‘not a person anymore’. Some critics are complaining that the representation is potentially too soft. Whilst the classic symptoms of the illness are written in- fuzzy arm hair (lanugo), the loss of periods (amenorrhea), the countable ribs and concave stomach, intense fidgeting, distorted vision of others, empty silences, the baggy clothes in dark colours, the equally dark horrific circles around the eyes, and the head seemingly too big for the body- the darker side of the disorder remains hidden under the table.
If your aim is to scare people and portray the really horrendous nature of eating disorders, then yes show them retching over a toilet with tears streaming down their faces, show the screaming, throwing food, scratching and clawing at the body, angry shouting at a mirror, dragging and pulling the already thinning hair, the dry, decaying hands, the blood boiling and voices yelling louder and louder and louder. It would be impossible to present anorexia or any other illness truthfully, and still have a wholesome likeable character with a strong personality. You would need to add an 18+ rating (excluding the age group that needs to see it most), a running internal monologue of confusion and anger and arguments. But above all, the greater the detail, the greater the potential for triggers to any sufferers.
(A side note: one point I do want to criticize is that every character had nice hands. It is unrealistic. Clearly not everyone has issues with their skin and nails falling apart, turning shades of yellow and blue, but it is a subtle detail which would have just added extra ugliness to this presentation of anorexia.)
For some viewers, this representation will be very relatable, for others it will seem alien. Every person has a different experience of their eating disorder. No representation of it will ever be ‘perfect’.
The portrayal of perfectionism within the film was subtle but effective. The quote which acknowledged the necessity of perfection for someone in Ellen’s position came surprisingly from the step-mother. Potentially the only appropriate thing she said all film was ‘Be good! Not too good... Not perfect’.
The idea of the ‘perfect’ recovery is a very common situation, emulated in the character of Luke (Alex Sharpe, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). He is an irritating caricature of an eccentric Brit, but his character represents an element of recovery which is often ignored, because it presents itself as a positive (which it can be short term)*. He’s an overachieving, determined ballet dancer. Luke wants to eat at the top 100 restaurants in town, a goal set with an obsession in mind. He is over enthusiastic and desperate to encourage others, as a way to encourage himself. Like Luke, many others in this situation feel they must be the best in their field, they must work harder, eat less and be skinner than anyone else. They control food when it feels like there is nothing else they can control. So equally, these perfectionists control their recovery. They set their goal and they want to achieve it more effectively than anyone else. This method will regain physical health, but leaves the mental health still in ruins.
One thing this film emphasises is that there is no one way to get better. In an early scene before we are introduced to Dr Beckham a few common recovery techniques are listed, including a comment on how brave one must be to try the ‘Minnie Maud’ method- which has worked effectively for some sufferers I know, but would have been ineffective for me.
Dr Beckham’s method is what worked for Noxon. There reaches a point in recovery when one must decide that one wants to live. Until this point, full recovery is never going to be achieved. The premise of Beckham’s programme is that he will not treat anyone unless they are ‘interested in living’. To quote the film, ‘Hospitals are for the sick, this place is for those getting over that’. There are no meal plans, no doors on the bedrooms, patients can walk out any time, there is a points and rewards system for success and participation, and though there are standard rules (locked bathrooms, compulsory mealtimes, group therapy sessions), it is a much more free environment than your typical hospital for eating disorders with terrible food, and patients locked indoors in a clinical environment. And I largely agree with the freedom method.
The issue with standardised meal plans and regulated meals where you are forced to eat is that for stubborn, rebellious characters like Ellen, being told what to do is not going to make you want to do it. Clearly, being guided is extremely helpful for some, but as iterated above, nobody’s experience of the illness or of recovery is the same. Some people, like Ellen, have to find their rock bottom to climb up the mountain of recovery (which is conveyed in the clichéd but well executed metaphor in the penultimate scene when Ellen finally sees reality from above). Everyone’s rock bottom is different and everyone has different motivations.
Equally, though Reeves’ performance and the writing of his character are faulted, Beckham’s character represented two crucial points. Firstly, he uses tough love. He will not give Ellen the magic solution to recovery, because there is not one. The writers used him to convey the necessity of realism within these disorders. It is not easy. He makes no pretences and he tells Ellen this clearly. She needs to channel her resilience, which she has in abundance, against the illness and ‘the voice’ instead of against those around her. The other important point Beckham emphasises is finding something to live for. He takes them to the Rain Room to show them the beauty of life, and uses other pieces of art and tastes of freedom to convey the necessity of this battle.
One use of art is with poetry. The writers made interesting use of the poem ‘Courage’ by Anne Sexton. Note when Anna (Kathryn Prescott, Skins) asks if she ‘has to’ read the poem out, Beckham responds negatively, and she is very willing to read it. Not only is the poem itself phenomenal and fitted the film as necessary, but in my own hour of need, my ‘rock bottom’, literature helped me to save myself. Every person fighting for their life against this horrible, horrible illness needs something to fight towards. Discovering writers like Sexton helped me find what I loved in life. Clearly, Noxon did not intend this added resonance; however the use of art acts as a reminder that beauty can be found in the depths of despair. It is no coincidence that often the finest pieces of artwork are created by those in the most pain, and those pieces of artwork, like Ellen’s own, are used by those in equal pain as a crutch.
Another important theme was family. The outstanding performances come from Carrie Preston (The Good Wife, True Blood) as the overly chatty step mother, desperate to fill the vacuum of life the illness creates (resulting, obviously, in numerous faux pas) and Liana Liberato (Stuck in Love- which Collins also featured in-, If I Stay) as Ellen’s sister, Kelly. Kelly represents the impact on those closest, and the jokes underlined with stern warnings convey a realistic sisterhood. My favourite shot of the film is the two sisters sitting in the hospital, with Kelly straight backed and Ellen hunched over, adding impact to the contrast between Ellen’s skeletal form and Kelly’s normal figure. What is and what could be.
But superior to this was the created family of those in Beckham’s care. His character was certainly paternal, and Luke is teased as being the mother hen of the house. Almost everyone who comes out of a unit agrees that what helped them through it were the other people there. Though the romantic dynamic was a questionable and unnecessary relationship, the unity of the patients helping each other (both in negative and positive ways) reflected the hospital experience very truthfully. Even in the darkest times, human connection can be found and can bring happiness.
This film will attract people in Ellen’s situation, so must act as an encouragement to the audience as well as the characters. It has to present hope to the desperate many. This hope is presented in the happiness found in other people and in the beauty of life.
One major disappointment was, however, the ending. It was an equally frustrating experience as the novel Winter Girls. It was the stereotypical, optimistic decision to recover. Yes, the film did build to this point, and presenting hitting ‘rock bottom’ as important. And seeing her smile properly for the first time was beautiful. Yet leaving the film on this positive note excludes the insane struggle which is to follow. I will give Noxon some slack here, as fitting that into the film would have rushed it, and there were presentations of recovery in the other characters. But what the world of eating disorder related literature needs is a presentation of what happens after that point, just as we lack pieces surrounding bulimia, BED, EDNOS, orthorexia, or disorders in non- middle class, pretty, white girls.
My final note is a critique of the critics of To The Bone. Reviews are rightly judging this piece as a film rather than a medical account for example, so the critiques of some of the acting and writing are valid, and I do agree there is more insight we could have been given, but this would be extremely difficult without causing huge triggers to those most likely to watch a film such as this.
My issue with these reviews however is the disregard of this as a moving film. One article complained about there being ‘too much silence’, a simple technique used by the sound editors to convey the numb nothingness and pain of the illness. Another reviewer comments on the ‘bizarre’ final engagement with her mother. This scene brought me to tears. All this character wants is to be looked after, in that moment of final weakness, her rock bottom, she wants her mother to cradle her and feed her. She wants to release the child trapped inside. Anyone who has seen their parents cry because of something they have done understands the feelings it provokes. For anyone else, imagine someone gripped hold of your heart strings one by one and wrenched them from your chest. That’s how it feels.
Overall, a film is only as good as what you take from it. As a standalone film, it was nothing special. But, in the context of someone who has dealt with and survived this illness, I was satisfied. This depiction not only had beautifully bleak mis-en-scene, the characters in the most part were believable and the writing hit the right balance of realism without causing triggers, but also because this film presented something I believe in, the necessity to choose to recover. I walk away from this film content it has done some justice to a story very close to my own heart.
* See the blog post by ‘Beauty Beyond Bones’ about this: https://beautybeyondbones.com/2015/02/27/the-golden-road-to-hell/
I’m Bea. Like the insect, the letter, the verb. Any jokes have already been made.