The first image from the film is a trigger warning and believe me, take heed. To The Bone is a serious, unflinching look at eating disorders that will absolutely be upsetting to each and every one of us, but particularly to those suffering from or recovering from eating disorders themselves.
Lily Collins, herself a survivor of eating disorders, plays Ellen, a young woman still very much in the throes of anorexia. The film shows her getting treatment in a centre run by Keanu Reeves, which should tell you all you need to know about how inauthentically the healing is portrayed. In reality, treatment is heavily regimented, usually in a medical setting. Eating disorders are the most deadly of mental illnesses, no one’s going to let an emaciated Lily Collins push a fish stick around her plate for dinner. And they’re also very difficult to treat because unlike drinking, you can’t simply give up food. You have to learn to eat in moderation. Eating disorders are often (but not always) about control. Often there is some type of childhood abuse that accounts for someone wanting very much to exert control over their bodies now.
This both is and isn’t the case with To The Bone, but the family dynamics are a strong point of the film. Ellen’s family situation is sad and disjointed. Family therapy does not go well. Her father is absent, her mother can’t deal anymore, so support is provided by a step-mother who maybe doesn’t have the closest of relationships with her husband’s tiring and trying daughter. Some of you may find this movie enlightening. Certainly I believe that Ellen and her disorder have been portrayed empathetically. But it’s a tough watch that could definitely be a hardship for some, and may glamourize a terrible disease for others. This is a film to be watched only with care, and preferably in the company of others.
Based on writer-director Marti Noxon’s own experiences with anorexia as a teen, the film forced Collins, in recovery for eating disorders, to lose 20lbs. She did so with the “help” of a nutritionist, but there’s nothing healthy about a young woman already on the brink of being too thin being asked to lose up to a fifth of her body weight. I hate that movies do that and I can’t imagine that graphic shots of protruding bones and skeletal characters is putting anything but negativity into the world. And it doesn’t help that none of the other characters are put into any kind of context. They help show that eating disorders are not just the stuff or rich white girls, but by keeping those characters one-dimensional, we do them a disservice. The thing is, even with good intentions, sharing stuff like this can be dangerous. Details about how to purge or count calories can come across as tips; Collins’ skin-and-bones frame can be seen as aspirational. And I suppose this is where we ask ourselves: is this film doing more harm than good? What is responsible film making? Without knowing the answers, I do know that I am not comfortable recommending this film without some heavy caveats.