Thursday 3 December 2020

Movie Review: To The Bone (2017)

A drama about the tribulations of anorexia, To The Bone explores the horrors of a cruel disease.

In Los Angeles, 20 year old budding artist Ellen (Lily Collins) suffers from anorexia. After her latest fruitless in-patient stint she returns to the home of stepmom Susan (Carrie Preston). Ellen's dad is never around and her mother Judy (Lili Taylor), now a lesbian, has moved to Phoenix with a new partner. Stepsister Kelly (Liana Liberato) gets along with Ellen but cannot understand her ailment. 

Susan arranges for Ellen to attend the clinic of well-regarded Doctor Beckham (Keanu Reeves), and Ellen reluctantly settles in for a 6-week stay. The other patients include Megan (Leslie Bibb), who is dealing with a surprise pregnancy, and the talkative Luke (Alex Sharp), an English ballet dancer making progress to overcome his disorder. Megan and Luke start to care for each other, but her aversion to eating persists and she continues to waste away.

Writer and director Marti Noxon strides into the world of a silent affliction and empathetically portrays victims struggling against a mental disorder visibly destroying their own good health. To The Bone is not an easy watch, Noxon not shying away from the haunting damage inflicted on the human body by an infuriating disease. Through a combination of diet and make-up Lily Collins looks appropriately malnourished, and the little tics and tricks of anorexics pockmark Ellen's days: incessant exercising, spitting out food, and constantly measuring her arm's diameter, obsessed with getting it smaller.

It is also a disease with multiple, complex, psychological and poorly understood causes, and no easy cures. And here To The Bone can only go so far before hitting a narrative wall. Ellen's dour behaviour and snarky attitude barely change throughout the film. Without drawing straight lines Noxon sequentially reveals various childhood trauma snippets: dysfunctional parenting, societal pressures, a difficult adolescence, and a tragic reaction to one of her drawings are posited in sketch form with truncated elaboration.

Beckham's clinic is presented as a generally chill hangout with minimal rules, and in fact the doctor is a distant presence, Luke instead providing most of the prodding towards better eating habits. Ellen's cinematic journey stalls, ploughing the same emotional and mental space, yielding a ponderously paced viewing experience.

Near rock bottom both in terms of Ellen's health and the film's heartbeat, the final chapter finally brightens up with a visit to Ellen's mother in Phoenix. Here Noxon finally injects a jolt of spirit, but it's almost too late. A brave excursion into a difficult topic, To The Bone is hampered by weary passivity.

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