THE MOVIE “To the Bone”
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ellen (Lily Collins) is a 20-year-old anorexic who’s placed into an L.A.-based outpatient facility run by Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), who expects the residents to find the courage to help themselves. Ellen, an artist, comes from a broken home: Her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston) is uncomprehending while her birth mother, Judy (Lili Taylor) — who came out when Ellen was a teen — lives with Olive (Brooke Smith) in Phoenix. Ellen’s not welcome there either. Among the other residents, Ellen finds some new friends, including Luke (Alex Sharp) who’s an old soul, former ballet dancer, and also bulimic. This was written and directed by TV veteran Marti Noxon (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) who suffered from anorexia as a young adult.
MY SAY Midway through “Bone,” a resident at Beckham’s facility is asked by him to read a poem by Anne Sexton, titled “Courage:”
“You did not fondle the weakness inside you, though it was there. Your courage was a small coal that you kept swallowing . . .”
The residents (and viewers) don’t learn the fate of Sexton, and just as well — she killed herself at age 45 — but “To the Bone” is abridged in those few short stanzas. They’re about the redemptive power of courage, also a bull’s-eye for this particular movie about anorexia. While intelligent and searing, it’s still a TV movie with all the conventions of one, including an insistently uplifting final scene. Anorexia can’t be cured by a movie and certainly can’t be cured within the confines of one. “Bone” never glamorizes anorexia, but you suspect it occasionally simplifies the battle.
Noxon had a Hobson’s choice of turning this into a weeper or documentary, and instead chose a middle course. There’s an enormous amount of information about anorexia here that gives structure to Ellen’s inner life, but never quite gets us to her inner core. We think we know her by the end of the film, but we really don’t. That’s an illusion, or a narrative sleight of hand, because Ellen doesn’t know herself.
Throughout the film she’s defined by others, some of whom we see, some we don’t. Viewers never meet her father, for example, and after a few minutes of “Bone” are pretty certain you never want to. He’s the culprit-in-absentia, the unwelcome jerk without a name. But he’s also a part of Ellen’s pathology, and you’re ultimately left to wonder which part: the bigger or smaller one?
Her mom, Judy, is a Taylor specialty. She’s damaged and alone, so much that Olive at times seems more like a caregiver than spouse. Judy has rationalized, or romanticized, a series of breakdowns she once suffered by saying they “helped me grow,” while Ellen points out that “you didn’t say that at the time.” Her stepmom is well-meaning and clueless. “Be good,” she tells Ellen when she drops her off at the clinic. She then catches herself: “Not too good. Not perfect.”
The performances are mostly excellent, Collins’ above all, but there’s one jewel here that’s especially economical. Before going to the clinic, Ellen’s sister Kelly (Liana Liberato) hugs her, then says, “If you die, I will kill you.”
It’s the best line of the movie, and the one that forces your heart into your throat. It’s also the most reassuring. We know then that Ellen will be OK.
BOTTOM LINE A beauty, and a graceful, hopeful one.