This is another drama film that was on the festival circuit that Netflix plucked out and released worldwide. You will have probably seen it living in your thumbnails recently if you obsessively keep an eye out on Netflix movies like I do. It is a movie about a character with anorexia. Oh, and it stars Keanu Reeves in a role that you just would not expect. Funny how Netflix keeps telling these jokes.
What’s it’s about?
It is about an anorexic girl called Ellen with an extremely dysfunctional family. The story begins as she drops out of college and fails to make any progress within her inpatient program. Her step mother forces her to see specialist, Dr. William Beckham, who insists that Ellen joins his inpatient programme that has its own methods for treating disorders. I find that eating disorders within TV and film are extremely difficult to get right, but To The Bone acts responsibly to an extent with a simple, straightforward storyline. I am not surprised it has dealt with the subject matter appropriately because writer and director Marti Noxon based it on her own struggles with the disease.
So it’s good?
I always find the subject of eating disorders to be rather frustrating because of the misunderstandings surrounding it. I don’t like it. I know that sounds obvious because who does? But both ends of the spectrum make me feel really uncomfortable if it is not represented correctly in narrative form. On-screen I feel the movie should not try to force you to understand the disorder, nor should it take the subject for granted. Whether I am right or wrong, I felt that To The Bone did an excellent job with the subject matter and the lead character, Ellen, played by Lily Collins, did a fine job with the role. The supporting characters in this are equally good. Also, this is not a typical long-winded Netflix movie.
But… Is it good?
Yes. The strength of this movie is that it is charming and not overly dramatic with its subject. Look, the problem when reviewing these movies is that there is no way on earth that I can understand what it is like to have an eating disorder. I am lucky in that I’ve never had one. I would like to believe that if I did have one that people would not make baseless assumptions about what I was going through. If they did it would be annoying. The movie tackles that notion in the form of the overly doting step-mother who for all intents and purposes has Ellen’s best interests at heart. You fully understand how annoyingly overbearing this could be. Once Ellen is with Beckham’s inpatient program, the movie is completely unshackled, as you are now amongst characters with various but similar eating disorders. This is where the movie becomes charming because the group is more important than the subject. The inpatient program is probably the strongest act in this movie because it is less about anorexia and more about character development. Yes, the film does portray harrowing scenes that detail what these people may have to go through, with tube feeding, free-for-all eating sessions, and weighing sessions, but the movie places a light touch approach on this by not slamming it down your throat.
So it’s not just about anorexia then?
The movie is told through the perspective of Ellen, who understandably does not understand her condition. I find that the turning point is a potential romance between herself and Luke. You never really feel as an audience member that there is any light at the end of the tunnel for Ellen until she meets Luke. He is, on the surface, annoying and over the top, and you can feel that due to the obvious tentative performances from both of the actors, so you know that he may become important to her. There are also other separate storylines that play into the movie with the other characters, so although the crux of it all is anorexia, there is a really good storyline to enjoy here, and the narrative almost never oversteps the mark either.
Well, funnily enough, even though I enjoyed it, I do have a single major problem and it is to do with Dr. William Beckham, who is played by Keanu Reeves. This is actually a good performance. I never expected Reeves to play a character who’s an understanding specialist dealing with young people with eating disorders. I will not go into too much detail with my problem because we will be breaching spoiler territory, but here goes; this doctor is very understanding for most of the movie and you understand his methods as a viewer. Unfortunately, there is a moment in particular where he is suddenly not understanding with a “get a pair of balls” speech, which to a mentally unstable anorexic does not make sense and was a moment where I became completely thrown off. Maybe I am wrong, and this could be a usual technique that specialists do, and maybe the writer/director Marti Noxon went through something similar, but to me, it felt completely outside the scope of the film’s message. I cannot imagine that someone who is on the edge of life at an inpatient program would be told to get a grip when they are at rock bottom, and, on the other hand, I am imagining someone who does have an eating disorder watching this movie feeling affected by these scenes. This is where the movie oversteps the mark, but only because the wrong character is used. If it was a related family member or a friend with emotional ties then it would have worked, but using the one character who is a specialist in dealing with eating disorders correctly and with professionalism comes across as nonsense. There are moments in the film where family members are involved and emotions spill over and funnily enough these are the best moments.
But you would still recommend?
Yes. Let’s bear in mind that overall this movie really understands the subject regardless of my one issue with it. The director and some members of the cast have suffered eating disorders previously in life. This is Lily Collin’s film and she has suffered with eating disorders herself, and she’s written a book about it. For this role she had to lose weight with help from a nutritionist which must have triggered something emotionally. I’m sure she had her own good reasons to revisit this moment in her life within an acting role. Regardless of the experience with the subject that lies in the production crew, the movie has still drawn controversy within the mental health community, with the film being accused of stigmatising anorexia. Unfortunately, I cannot agree or disagree, as I am not an expert, but I felt that even though there were obvious depictions of the condition, it still raises awareness of the misunderstandings. There is one scene in particular where Ellen’s sister blurts to the doctor something along the lines of, “I do not get it. Just eat”. That moment of dialogue is useful for audiences that do not understand because the misunderstanding is tackled within the narrative.
This is a good movie that tackles eating disorders within a good, honest story. If it was not for the absurd moment of “get a grip” then I would have scored To The Bone higher, but it was a major problem for me.
Enjoyed reading this review? Then you will probably like listening to us too so check out our podcast
Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.