A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2017


2017, No MPAA Rating R, 107 mins.


Lily Collins as Ellen  /  Keanu Reeves as Dr. William Beckham  /  Carrie Preston as Susan  /  Lili Taylor as Judy  /  Alex Sharp as Luke  /  Liana Liberato as Kelly  /  Kathryn Prescott as Anna  /  Ciara Bravo as Tracy  /  Alanna Ubach as Karen  /  Hana Hayes as Chloe  /  Brooke Smith as Olive  /  Michael B. Silver as Dr. Weiner  /  Maya Eshet as Pearl  /  Rebekah Kennedy as Penny  /  Joanna Sanchez as Rosa  /  Lindsey McDowell as Kendra  /  Don O. Knowlton as Jack

Written and directed by Marti Noxon  


TO THE BONE is a new Netflix Film that tackles an extremely serious subject matter that often never gets dealt with in major Hollywood mainstream theatrical features - eating disorders and how they physically and mentally ravage away on people that suffer from them.  

Yes, there have been many past films that have dealt with mental illness in one form or another, but eating disorders like anorexia are a whole other type of mysterious and damning one altogether, mostly because understanding and treating them requires a specific level of tactful care.  That, and the movie and pop culture industry is guilty of perpetuating the desired norm of "thinness equals attractiveness," so much so that it has easily become a preoccupation in many young - and old - women to have an unquenchable obsession with body perfection.  Movies are as guilty as any other art form in contributing to negative stigmas regarding weight and perceived attractiveness. 



TO THE BONE is an ultra rare film that manages to take a deeply intimate look at the mindsets of several women as they battle - in their own form or another - with the near paralyzing effects of anorexia and how eating to them is literally akin to gorging on a cocktail of poison.  That's the ultimately frightening aspect of anorexia that TO THE BONE deals with in a fairly unflinching and in-your-face manner that many viewers will undoubtedly have difficulty enduring.  Rather successfully, writer/director Marti Noxon's drama doesn't try to shamelessly romanticize her characters for the purposes of eliciting dramatic payoffs: These people here are flawed, sometimes toxically dislikable, and tragically uncomfortable within their own skin while on their daily journeys of counting calories to maintain their skeletal physiques.  TO THE BONE tries to place us within the souls of these tortured women, and even when the screenplay goes down a few conventional alleys the film nevertheless finds an emotional honesty with its sufferers that's both heartbreaking and uplifting. 

Beyond that, TO THE BONE is a revelatory experience on a performance level for its main star Lilly Collins, an actress that I have, yes, been hard on in past film roles, but here she displays a raw and empowered level of commitment to her role that's hard to overlook.  She plays the 20-year-old Ellen, a college dropout that returns to the home of her stepmother and father after struggling though an impatient program to treat her debilitating anorexia.  Ellen's biological mother (Lily Taylor) has largely been an absentee maternal figure in her life, who became a lesbian and now lives several states away with her lover.  Ellen's father is even more of a no-show in her life, leaving her feeling all the more isolated and cut-off from the two people that matter the most to her.  Worse yet, her eating disorder is taking a disastrous turn for the worse. 

At her absolute wit's end, Ellen's stepmother decides to make one last ditch attempt to essentially save her daughter's life by booking her an appointment with a renowned specialist, Dr. William Beckham (a reliably and effectively modulated Keanu Reeves), who has a reputation for getting results in the most unorthodox ways.  After his initial check-up with Ellen the good doctor insists that she join his unique impatient program, which she begrudgingly agrees to.  At the impatient house she meets a colorful menagerie of sufferers that are dealing with different eating disorders in their own ways, like Leslie Bibb's shockingly bulimic pregnant mother and Alex Sharp's Luke, a former dancer that has been sidelined by injury that takes a strange liking to Ellen.  The first few days are awkward for Ellen, especially in terms of dealing with the home's mandatory rules, like no doors anywhere (to ensure that no one is secretly purging) and mealtimes are compulsory, but curiously the patients can eat whatever they want...whether it be peanut butter straight from a jar or rich pasta dish.   

I found that TO THE BONE - after a somewhat lethargic start - begins to compellingly take off once Ellen enters her new program and we're introduced to all of her afflicted fellow patients.  It's here where the film really tries to cut to the underlining symptoms of eating disorders that people on the outside simply don't understand.  Ellen's stepmother, in an early scene, just insists that she eats because, well, that seems so simple and easy to do.  What this well meaning, but ignorant mother doesn't get is that it's not a simple black and white case of getting an anorexic to eat successfully...it requires a more measured and calculated approach, seeing as Ellen is the kind of sick girl that will meticulously monitor every single calorie and fat content of every item that's placed on her meal plate before she even contemplates taking a bite.  The biggest uphill battle that people have in treating these people is breaking down this neurotic conditioned behavior.   

Leading the film's charge is Collins, who makes an equal parts astonishing and shocking physical transformation for the role to come off as an authentically emaciated young woman (but, I have to admit, I sometimes found myself distracted by the health of Collins behind the scenes in prepping for this part on more than one occasion while watching the narrative unfold).  What makes Ellen really stand apart as an intriguing character is that she's afforded depth...and is not a squeaky clean protagonist here.  She's vulnerable, sad, unhealthily frail, and soft spoken, but she's also capable of being caustic and hurtful to those that are trying to save her, and Collins' tricky performance is effective at trying to balance those polar opposite extremes.  Keanu Reeves is arguably the biggest name in this cast as the quirky and eccentric doctor, and this film once again reminds viewers that the typically stoic and understated actor can been shockingly good when given just the right role to fully harness his particular brand of laid back earnestness.   

Collins and Reeves are supported well by their co-stars, especially Lilly Taylor, who makes her beleaguered mother character a bit more fleshed out and layered than I was frankly expecting (she occupies the film's most moving scene as she quietly confronts her daughter by revealing her own wounded insecurities about their fractured relationship and her condition).  I also like the effervescent charm that Alex Sharp brings to his infectiously sardonic and quirky inpatient that has a determined manner of getting brutally honest with Ellen in order to open her up emotionally to both him and the other patients.  Where TO THE BONE missteps, I think, is in forging ahead with a romance between the pair, which comes off a bit too perfunctorily for a film of this nature.  A more compelling angle would have been to approach Ellen's unthawing to Luke in a more platonic manner.  Why take the road most traveled approach with these characters when they're anything but road most traveled characters? 

One other thing annoyed me a bit with TO THE BONE.  For as much as I admired Reeves in the film and his quiet spoken, Zen-like charisma, his doctor is a vague entity in the story who appears and then disappears for no tangible reason.  That, and considering that this character has developed a huge stature as a pioneering practitioner in his field, TO THE BONE offers very little, if any, insight into his actual process.  He gives motivational speeches here and there, but does very little else.  When there are scenes involving him making breakthroughs with Ellen and the other patients I was left scratching my head as to what his methodology actually entailed.  Surely there's more to treating anorexia than F-bomb riddled pep talks.   

Still, I'm recommending TO THE BONE for trying to pull the blinders open to a world vastly unseen by contemporary films, and ones seen in multiplexes.  Even though Ellen's journey towards self-actualization and healing comes at the expense of a somewhat half-heartedly written third act, TO THE BONE still manages to be an admirably focused look at a troubling disease that ruins many young lives without proper treatment and counseling.  Not all of Noxon's choices work well for the material, but she should at least be applauded for going to places that a majority of other films wouldn't dare.  More importantly, it forces us to understand the psyches of those that are being wasted away by aliments that are often stigmatized, but not compassionately understood.     

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