To the Bone is based on writer/director Marti Noxon’s personal struggle with eating disorders, specifically anorexia and bulimia. Her feature debut follows a 20-something year old, Ellen (Lily Collins), and her battle with anorexia. Obsessed with calorie counting (she can accurately tell you how many calories each item on her plate of food has), Ellen’s been in and out of various recovery and inpatient programs in her teenage years, but she’s never able to put the weight back on. Her anorexia is so severe that she now has amenorrhea, the absence of regular menstruation.
Concerned about Ellen’s health, her family begs her to see another doctor so that she can take steps towards getting better. Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves) gives her an ultimatum – either she tries his inpatient program, or he won’t treat her. Ellen agrees to go live in this youth home, but not before she gets a warning from her sister Kelly (Liana Liberato, Collins’ co-star from Stuck in Love) saying, “If you die. I will kill you.”
When Ellen arrives at the home, she’s caught off guard by the non-traditional rules and is eventually charmed by the other patients, particularly Luke (Alex Sharp). Of all the other patients in the house, Luke is not only the most determined to get better for himself, but he is also Ellen’s biggest champion for her to confront her own illness and addictions.
Tony Award winning Sharp was a great casting choice for Luke. Eating disorders are no joke; they’re not supposed to be humorous. But Sharp manages to make Luke charming and funny enough so that his anorexia isn’t that intimidating. And it’s not for his benefit; it’s for the other patients so they feel more comfortable talking about their own illness.
But the real star of To the Bone is, without a doubt, Lily Collins. The fact that Collins herself had previously suffered from eating disorders made her performance one of the most raw and honest ones of the year. It gave Ellen’s character an element of believability and truth. It truly is a career-defining role for Collins. To draw upon such a personal issue and be able to share that story on screen, even if it’s not exactly the same as what she might have gone through herself, takes courage. She’s essentially reliving (what I am assuming to be) one of the darkest, toughest moments in her life, but this time millions of eyes will see it. Talk about facing your demons.
While the majority of the film was well written and told a very moving story, Noxon’s television background shows in the third, and weakest, act of To the Bone. Near the end, the film felt more like the season finale of a TV show that was about to go on hiatus and return in the fall – the tone didn’t quite match the rest of the film.
There’s no doubt that To the Bone will stir up some conversation and possibly some controversy. Some may say that the film tries to glamourize and romanticize eating disorders. I’d counter and say that Noxon has actually been able to tell a story that will encourage healthy discussion about the illness. To the Bone isn’t trying to make light of the illness; it’s trying to get people to realize that it’s okay to talk about it. Noxon wants us to become more comfortable to talk about a topic that might seem taboo and remove some of the stigma associated with eating disorders.
Ellen’s story is just that – her story about her journey and struggle with her eating disorder. Luke has his own story. And millions of other people in the world each have their own unique experience with eating disorders. Ellen doesn’t represent everyone who has ever had an eating disorder, but she does serve as a way to make it a little easier for someone to ask for help or to try and understand some of the addictive tendencies that occur simultaneously with eating disorders.