To the Bone : Throughout the history of film, the medium has been used to pull back the curtain on various issues, bringing them to the forefront for all to see. Often times, what lurks in the shadows is rather ugly and is met with derision when the lights are turned on. Yet, the very act of turning on those lights is what helps those issues be dealt with on a broad scale. No longer are they given the power to lurk in the shadows undisturbed. Now, they are brought forth and fought against with all of our combined might. Addiction falls squarely into this and has long been the muse of many a filmmaker. Whether it is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) focusing on alcoholism, Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm (1955) focusing on drug addiction, or Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) focusing on opioid/prescription addiction, cinema has long been used to shed light on that which many wish to ignore as an issue. While drugs and alcohol have long been the focus, however, additions to ideas or feelings can be conjured up all the same. That is what Director Marti Noxon hopes to accomplish with To the Bone. Pull back the curtain on anorexia in a similar way that has been done for drugs and alcohol. Anorexia and other eating disorders that are introduced in the film - bulimia or binge eating - are a silent crisis facing our world that many discounts as being for any number of reasons. For example, magazines and models are criticized for unrealistic depictions of beauty. In other cases, some form of abuse is to blame. However, as the film clarifies, there is no one reason. It is an addiction that fulfills some sort of need and each case is different, though likely derived from a variety of life experiences.
Healing comes from wanting it for yourself, not others wanting it for you. Focusing on the struggle of Ellen/Eli (Lily Collins) to overcome her anorexia, one of the chief accomplishments of Noxon’s directorial debut is how it never trivializes anything. Though the film has been inaccurately criticized for romanticizing anorexia by those who have only read about the film, Noxon treats the material in a very authentic, raw, and understated fashion that allows no mistake to be made: anorexia is an addiction, it is a problem, and it must be dealt with. In drawing this distinction between “trend” and “illness”, Noxon’s film approaches Eli like the addict that she is. It shows her steep decline to nothingness and shows the challenges in her life with a family that thinks, “Just eat,” is good advice for their anorexic daughter. As with any addiction, Eli must decide to not let her illness defeat her. She must stand up and face the music of her volition. Without a desire to heal, she is doomed to just continually be admitted to various in-patient clinics without making any progress, no matter how talented the doctor may or may not be. To overcome addiction, the addict must be ready to fight. They cannot let others fight for them and that is the issue Eli is having up to this point. She watches herself wither away and is simply undecided whether she wishes to let the addiction kill her or not. Thus, her family has to go to bat for her and fights on her behalf, but unfortunately, it is a fruitless war. It is one they are guaranteed to lose, as Eli must want it for herself and cannot be made to want this change. Of all of To the Bone’s achievements, painting anorexia as the addiction that it is and showing how meaningless advice to eat will not help. It is only when the addict opts to make a change in their life that anything can actually be accomplished.
Collins shines. Derived from her own experience as a sufferer from anorexia, it is clear that To the Bone was a deeply personal film for star Lily Collins. Thus far in her career, she has been the lead multiple times, but perhaps no film has better showcased her talent than this film. Dropping 20 pounds to play the anorexic and near-death Eli, Collins not only brings that passion to the role but a dry disinterest. As everybody tries to make her healthy but herself, Collins nail the passive disinterest. She is unsure that she wants to die but has no idea whether she does not want to either. Capturing this essence in a reserved, low-key, and powerful performance, Collins does not make Eli into an angsty and aggressive figure, which she easily could have with how she is written. Instead, she makes her deeply sympathetic and a tragic figure to watch. In moments when she is with Lucas (Adam Sharp), a fellow anorexia sufferer and her love interest, it is easily apparent to see the life within her. However, it is covered by an immense darkness. Collins covers this subtle brooding nature of Eli beautifully along with her far more positive and lively moments brilliantly. Of all of her performances thus far, To the Bone stands proudly as Collins’ pre-eminent achievement and is likely to be cited as the moment when she became a star.
While cliche, it is powerful to watch. It is hard to deny that a film that continuously says, “It is not about the fall, but about how you get up” is cliche. To the Bone embraces this a bit in the healing process and certainly feels cliche, yet it feels real at all times. The struggles faced by those in the group home can certainly be compared to the recent Short Term 12 by Destin Daniel Cretton. Based on Cretton’s experiences working in a group home for troubled teens, the film stands as one of the best of the decade and a clear recent influence on Noxon’s film with the dynamic between the patients. As they all face various eating disorders and life tragedies with one another, this eclectic group of people comes to be a family over time with their shared experience. When one falls, they all rush to pick them back up and they continuously encourage one another to face their treatment head-on and not continue to run away. They hide secrets, yes, but are nonetheless there for another at every stage of their recovery. The film is unafraid to embrace this “group dynamic” cliche with predictable slips and tragedies coming throughout the film. It is certainly not original, nor is the film subtle in these areas. However, in the way that it is written, it is impossible to deny the film’s power. It is a film that calls to attention an issue faced by far too many people - on another note, the film is brilliant for including a young anorexic boy in this home, as the issue of eating disorders is far too often seen as a “female-only” problem, not one that impacts all of us - and is unafraid to show the real truths in life. For those that have ever gone through tragedy, when it is blown up on a worldwide scale, it does often seem like cliche feelings and moments. Yet, To the Bone does what any powerful film about cliche events and feelings accomplishes: it cuts through this feeling of “sameness” to become a profound experience. You know you have seen this film many times, but this time, it feels real and things that were actually experienced by those who made the film. It has that “no bullshit” attitude that only comes from having actually lived through the trauma, which is a true accomplishment for any film to have in its corner.
Gorgeously captured. One of the more unexpected elements of the film that is beautiful is the cinematography. Put at the center of attention when the group goes to the art museum with Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves), the film becomes quite beautiful as they all dance in the rain display. With a gorgeous silhouette of them all as Lucas dances and reaches out his hand to Eli, the film unexpectedly plays like a classic musical with a perfect backing track and attention to detail in the choreography. The same beautiful silhouetting comes back later in the film as Eli ascends a mountain and the beautiful cinematography without silhouetting really comes into play when Eli sees herself in the desert towards the end.of the film. Both are gorgeous moments of great artistic touch by Noxon that proves that even when the subject is a rather low-key, grim, and sad one, that is no excuse to not make the film the occasional feast for the eyes.
Unnecessary romance that turns creepy rather quick. The one item that really holds To the Bone back, however, is its romance between Eli and Lucas. Quickly developing, Lucas is a quirky “nice guy” type that never gets called out on his nonsense. Getting Eli to let him kiss her before he lets slip that he is falling in love with her, thus killing the mood, Lucas is called out for trying to run off afterward and for dumping such heavy emotions on Eli so soon after they met. However, he not only tries to peer pressure her into eating, but he also tries to guilt trip her into staying in the home when she wants to leave in order to support him in his time of need. Lucas is a funny character at times but quickly devolves into a creepy and sinister character that never gets rebuked for this creepiness. Instead, he is rewarded for it and Noxon refuses to approach him with anything more than kid gloves. For a film that is so much about healing and facing addiction, it shies away from being exclusively about this by forcing in this unnecessary romance. That would be bad enough if Lucas were not such a creepy guy who felt as though he owned Eli and knew her for many years due to the connection he felt through her artwork on Tumblr. It is an issue that the film refuses to broach properly and, as a result, it winds up sticking out like a sore thumb. Had they kept Lucas as maybe a low-key romantic interest and one did not become a creep, it would have been excusable and a way to add dimension to the characters. Instead, it becomes a real blight on the film as a whole.