The following article contains To the Bone (2017) spoilers.
When I first saw the trailer for To the Bone (2017), I mistook the film for an upcoming Netflix original series. As the trailer portrayed the story of a young woman’s battle with an eating disorder, I was immediately disappointed in Netflix. Surely they weren’t going to make the rounds on every social issue and turn each into a teen fandom a-la 13 Reasons Why. That would be in poor taste, right? I was reluctant to support a series of this nature until yesterday, when I clicked to find out To the Bone is a Netflix Original film with a run-time of only about 100 minutes. This changed everything.
Series are typically a far more goal-oriented storytelling. And while I am the first to commit myself to the couch for 12 hours for a binge-watch, series can often take the authenticity out of character and plot development. Because each episode is supposed to lead the viewer to the next, the business of series-making is more pressurized and less penetrating. Film, on the other hand, has the ability take an audience completely where it wants to go, at its own pace, making any detours necessary. To this effect, series have become vastly more exciting to marketable audiences than movies. Because series consumption is quick and ravenous, fans of shows practically create a second narrative to the show. Netflix dramas like 13 Reasons Why and Orange is the New Black are sensationalized beyond their original purposes. Though fan popularity has driven these shows to success, I see trite Cosmopolitan articles and BuzzFeed quizzes that compromise the weight of these compelling stories. Because To the Bone is a movie, it is potentially freed from the mania-like viewership that controls successful Netflix series. As a film, To the Bone can simply take us where it must.
And take me on an unexpected journey it did. To the Bone is not a melodrama; it is not a dark comedy; it is not a coming of age story. To the Bone is the tale of Ellen, who battles anorexia. As her health becomes critical, Ellen faces her personal and family problems in a recovery home. As angsty as that sounds, the film is equal parts harrowing, ironic and pure. I kept waiting around for a heroic, come-to-Jesus monologue about anorexia, but it was never necessary. This film felt real because it purposed all the emotions of mental illness into its presentation. Even cinematically, I felt To the Bone offered a new vision of those who suffer from eating disorders; one of clarity and sharpness.
Before I watched To the Bone, I debated with myself what kind of lens I would watch this film through. I asked myself- Okay, how am I going to tackle this one? Because as I said before, when I saw the trailer for the film, I thought careful, Netlifx. Eating disorders are a widely untouchable topic. To the Bone had to strike just the right chord or else audiences would be offended. The film needed to be gritty enough to have a hand in the conversation, but polite enough not to be triggering.
I realized, quickly, that I was censoring my own interpretation of this film before the opening credits. Too often we monitor our thoughts and actions in fear of misrepresenting a cause. I questioned if it was my place to write a review of this film, or if I could fully take in the message it had to offer. I was holding this film up in a way that augmented the story’s integrity. As mass viewership often does in 2017, we let our feelings get in the way of the lessons we should learn. And there is plenty to be learned from this film.
A main concern from audiences is the film’s glamorization of anorexia and bulimia. Many offer that making a film featuring an in-depth look at eating disorders will encourage audiences to unhealthy habits and body monitoring. Director and writer of the film Marti Noxon has shared that this could not be further from the truth. Stating that this film is semi-autobiographical, Noxon made it a point that To the Bone focused on the character more than it did the body. There are only a handful of scenes in the film that show Ellen’s malnourished body without her face. This directorial choice takes objectification out of Ellen’s illness. She isn’t just body parts struggling, she’s a person.
I believe part of the taboo with eating disorder discussion is its underlying sexual implications. More so than any other mental illness, I would argue, eating disorders place women in the most difficult social position. Physical appearance (and therefore desirability) takes precedent over actual wellness. This misconception is portrayed in Ellen’s stepmother and mother, as they comment on Ellen’s body throughout the film. I’m sure their misplaced concern is annoying or unsettling to some viewers. Eating disorders are such a sensitive topic, how could they be so careless?
If you haven’t gathered already, To the Bone is a tastefully developed middle finger to the social justice era. To the Bone is not careful in its wording, nor does it tiptoe around its characters’ circumstance. But to my surprise, no part of the film is sloppy or melodramatic. The pain and tears in the film are earned. To the Bone is balanced enough to show the dynamism of an anorexic character as a young woman. A scene that exemplifies this is Ellen and her friend Luke’s dinner date. Ellen is gabbing away with Luke, laughing and telling stories. But in between sentences, Ellen spits her Asian noodles into her napkin. This damaging eating disorder behavior is not played up with dramatic music, nor is her friend ashamed of her or angry. This was a moment necessary to plot development that incorporated her eating disorder rather than showboating it. As we watch Ellen progress, the levels to her illness are rich in family problems and self destruction.
This full display of Ellen’s character isn’t particularly pleasant. She isn’t sweet or lovably cheeky; her character has faced real hardship and she is incredibly guarded because of it. The same goes for the other characters in the inpatient facility. As a result, the things that come out of their mouths are not always thoughtful or socially acceptable. While viewers at home may be uncomfortable with this, a review of the film I watched explained it this way: the characters in this film are losing their will to live. Do you really think think they care about being appropriate or kind?
To the Bone plays into the political correctness of eating disorders by incorporating Ellen’s artistic storyline. Ellen posted her ED-themed artwork on Tumblr, which inspired a follower– a complete stranger– to commit suicide. Ellen shares that this person left her artwork behind as an explanation to her family. I appreciated this narrative within the film, because I have actually stumbled across Tumblr accounts of this very nature. We push for people to express themselves creatively until their result makes us uncomfortable. Similarly, in 2017, we are to support mental illness… under limited discussion. Sharing gruesome details or hard truths is touchy. To a degree, we wish for some sort of remorse in eating disorder storytelling. To feel better about ourselves, we secretly want films such as this to apologize for their transparency.
I applaud To the Bone for unapologetically being real: nothing more and nothing less. Over and over again, members of Ellen’s family tell her to just eat. Of course the facets of eating disorders are convoluted and make ingestion seem repulsive; the notion of just eating seems impossible. It’s like telling a person with an open wound to just stop bleeding. But as I consider the film, the crux of To the Bone is very simple. In one scene, Dr. Beckham takes his patients to a simulated rain art exhibition, where the housemates can stand, get soaked and breathe in what it feels like to live. Just being is motivated in the same fashion as just eating– with great courage and a little push from the voices you trust.
The real-life experience of those with eating disorders is that of confused parents, banal professional advice and a crumbling sense of self. Dressing these experiences up as easier or more harmless would disadvantage audiences on their way to understanding. In high school, my creative writing teacher once explained that sharing your truth is more important than political correctness, or how others may view what you have to say. The parents in To the Bone are oblivious and deeply selfish. The housemates in the film partake in disturbing behaviors that coincide with their respective disorders. While both character traits are not totally “correct” in 2017, they show the bleak truth of what living with or around an ED is like. By holding up this type of mirror, hopefully we may begin to adjust the way we help those with mental illness.
I do not have, nor have I ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder. But the eight million individuals a year that are diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and related eating disorders proves that this issue can be, and is, close to all of us. To the Bone is a heavy film, no doubt. But the movie does not make a spectacle out of Ellen’s illness, and I can’t imagine the stark honesty of the film offending those with similar experiences. If the images in To the Bone are too intense for you, don’t watch the film. But the subject matter should not immediately push you away from a story with such incredible impact.
To the Bone confronts the fatality of eating disorders– a fact not completely promoted in mainstream media. Even after all the information about eating disorders I’ve accumulated throughout the years, this film still opened my eyes to the possibility of losing the battle. I think back to the hours my friends and I spent in the mirror as young girls, squeezing and prodding at one another. I think about how some classmates acted finicky during school lunch periods and no one really ever asking why. I think back to examining the severe bruising on my childhood friend’s boney spine and her deflective answers to my questions. I think about the numerous death announcements of young people, particularly girls, stating their longstanding struggle with their ED was over. I think about all of it, and realize just how avoidable and unnecessary that pain is.
The voices of survivors should never be silenced, because the result may turn into a dialogue about proper therapy and help. When we tell those who experience eating disorders to just eat, we essentially negate the mental and emotional complexities of their illness. To the Bone opens up these complexities and faces them head-on. Without films like To the Bone, eating disorders may only ever be understood at face value and we will continue telling those suffering to just eat. We need media like this to explain how mental illness encompasses a person. To the Bone is a staunch representation of a battle that so many face; the execution is poignant and full of life. This film is the first I’ve seen in a while that addresses a choice social issue fully and with resolve. To the Bone takes us through bone and to the heart.