(Mild spoilers ahead)
It’s hard to review this movie without talking about, or acknowledging at the least, the controversy surrounding it. It’s also hard to watch it without being affected by this noise. Unfortunately, I think most people’s opinion of this movie will be made up before they’ve even seen the opening scene. For those of you who saw the trailer and argued it glamorized eating disorders or was triggering for those who are currently suffering from or recovering from an eating disorder, you will find moments in the film that will justify your opinion. Shots of a sickly thin body, moments when our lead blurts out the calorie count of every food on her plate, moments that can be taken out of context and used as “thinspo” on Tumblr. But if you look at the film as a cohesive piece, nobody could argue that it glamorizes eating disorders in any way.
For those of you not familiar with the new Netflix movie, it stars the beautiful Lily Collins as Ellen, a 20-year-old woman who’s been in and out of treatment facilities for anorexia nervosa. The film picks up when her dysfunctional family are at their wits end with her but decide to send her to a new “unconventional” doctor (Keanu Reeves) who is blunt, nearly seeming unsympathetic, towards her but agrees to check her into his treatment facility. There we meet a host of characters who are both helpful & unhelpful to Ellen at times, the most influential being Luke, whos dreams of becoming a dancer have been shattered by his illness.
It’s a tough watch, with some brash humour and several moments that make you feel as though you’ve been punched in the stomach. The performances are all fantastic (Luke is a pain in the ass most of the time but Alex Sharp does a good job of trying to make him charming instead). Particularly moving is Lily Collins, who herself has suffered with an eating disorder, and Lili Taylor who plays Ellen’s mother. The script for the most part is good too, although I wish there was a bit more “resolution” by the end. So at the end of the day, what’s going to leave you with a positive or negative feeling about this film is whether or not you think the very existence of this movie glamorizes anorexia – for me this is a resounding no.
One argument for this film glamorizing ed’s is that there’s a couple of shots of Collin’s severely underweight body. I would argue that it is necessary to show this in the film, that it would not be as powerful as it is if we couldn’t see for ourselves what the illness has done to her body. For me, the few scenes in which Collins strips down are a visceral, visual image that show us that this illness is not about chasing unrealistic beauty standards, there is nothing at all beautiful about the the emaciated, bruised skeleton covered in downy fur we see in this movie.
Some more positives for To The Bone is I don’t think it falls victim to some common cliché’s about eating disorders. It addresses the fact that anorexia is not about thinness, rather it’s about control. It also gives us examples of other eating disorders such as binge-eating disorder and shows us that eating disorders can affect people of all colours, sizes and sexualities. It addresses the issue of art trivializing or glamorizing mental illness, something which ironically, To The Bone has been accused of. In the film, we learn that Ellen’s artwork has been used as #thinspo on Tumblr and tragically, resulted in a girl losing her life. The film thus acknowledges that art can have an extremely negative affect on others, but it also addresses the fact that ultimately it is not Ellen or her artwork that is to blame for the unnamed girls death. I would agree with the films assertion in that regard, and that’s why I would have to disagree with those who say this film should be banned because it may be triggering to some.
This film comes with a warning before it plays and it is your personal responsibility not to watch this film if you believe it might be triggering for you. As for those looking for #thinspo in To The Bone, if this film did not exist there is plenty to be found online, in magazines, on TV. I certainly believe in ‘trigger warnings,’ but I don’t believe in banning material because it may be triggering for some. As I understand it (I didn’t watch it), one of the issues with 13 Reasons Why is they did not provide sufficient trigger warnings for their content and they did not offer a sense of hope, something that may be discouraging to viewers. In contrary to this, To The Bone provides both a sufficient trigger warning & a hopeful (but not unrealistic or fairytale) ending. Therefore I don’t think it’s fair to lump the two together.
I’ve also heard people argue that this film could inspire someone to “get” an eating disorder. Whatever about those with a history of ed’s, I can say from the perspective of someone who has never suffered from an eating disorder, I can not imagine anyone that would see this movie and “get” an eating disorder. To me that’s absolutely absurd. It shows the physical and mental toll the illness has on both the victim and all their friends and family, and there is not a single moment where it shows or appears to show ANYTHING positive associated with the illness.
Although I’ve never personally suffered with an eating disorder, I do suffer from GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder). GAD is something that affects my life every single day, and anyone with any kind of mental illness will probably have experienced times when that mental illness was overwhelming and affected not only themselves but others around them. The reason I bring this up is because I think To The Bone deals with this very well. One of the scenes that hit me the hardest was a scene in the last third of the movie where Ellen’s mother breaks down / tries an unconventional method she thinks might help her daughter. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie that shows you the pain, the guilt, the heartbreak this illness has caused the sufferers parent. When Ellen takes her up on the offer, I felt she was doing it for her mother rather than for herself.
That was one of my favourite moments in the film for many reasons, one of which was that I think it showed Ellen in a positive light and gave sufferers credit where credit is due. A lot of people with mental illness will experience everyone from healthcare professionals to friends and family and even strangers telling them a whole host of random shite they think will “cure” them. As the person receiving the advice it can be a real pain in the ass. For one, because you’ve probably heard that advice a million times before and tried it already, for another because it implies, in a way, that you’re just not trying hard enough to “get better.” To have to smile and accept people telling you what to do with your own head or body etc is at times really frustrating and downright insulting even when it’s well intended, sometime we just do it to keep others we love happy. I really appreciated that they showed Ellen doing something for her mom, giving those of us who suffer with mental illnesses credit where credit is due.
Even on the first day of its release on Netflix, a quick google search will return reviews ranging from 5 stars to 1 stars for To The Bone, I am sure many of my friends will have a negative impression of this movie, but my personal opinion is that this movie meant will, and we could do with more of them. Films that address binge eating disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Films that shows these disorders for what they are, mental illnesses that negatively affect the lives of those of us who live with them as well as our family and friends. There is nothing quirky or cute about OCD or GAD, just as there is nothing beautiful about anorexia. And I think it is only through realistic depictions like To The Bone that the wider population will come to understand this.
That’s why I am giving To The Bone 4.5 out of 5 stars. I have enormous respect for Lily Collins for finding the inner strength to confront her own past with eating disorders and take on this movie, and I hope that those who prejudged the film and accused it of glamorizing eating disorders will give it a chance and see that it does nothing of the sort.
Streaming on Netflix now