Emily Stamp reviews Netflix's new film 'To The Bone'; the platform's first foray into the discussion of eating disorders. Emily candidly assesses the quality of the movie as a work of art but also assesses Netflix's approach to the highly sensitive subject matter and its representation of anorexia nervosa. She does this in light of the plethora of mixed reviews it has received and the buzz of discussion on social media after the release of its trailer.
Warning: Movie spoilers + this article makes reference to eating disorders and mental illnesses. If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or feel that this could trigger you, but you still plan on watching this film it is recommended that you do not do so alone due to the graphic nature of its content.
“To The Bone” is the first feature-length movie about anorexia and, as with Netflix’s highly controversial '13 Reasons Why,’ it is refreshing to see a large media source take the subject seriously. It is also a well-informed movie based on director Marti Noxon’s own experiences and, in addition, the main star, Lily Collins, has also been open about her struggles with eating disorders.
The movie has had very mixed reviews, including criticism for its lacklustre acting, its bad dialogue (Keanu reeves plays possibly the least empathetic or sympathetic therapist ever to have existed, whose advice boils down to an equivalent of ‘man up’) and the general consensus seems to be that the awkward and pushy romance scenes were unnecessary. The trailer, and even the provocative title, has been heralded as “thinspiration,” yet this is no glamourised story. The movie itself goes beyond that and, although it is not an enjoyable or comfortable watch, it may be a worthwhile one. Besides, if a movie about a serious mental illness were enjoyable, then something would be seriously wrong.
Ellen, the main character, spends most of the movie in a clinic that is slightly more alternative compared to your usual hospital, where she struggles with new interpersonal relationships, family issues and a budding (if awkward and unnecessary) romance with the only male patient. These family issues highlight the ignorance of those around her with regards to anorexia, with her pushy and overbearing stepmother wanting to do her best without knowing how; an absentee father; and a mother who struggled to take care of her. It is Ellen’s relationship with her sister that is the most real; a sister who is truly scared and whose prom pictures did not contain Ellen, as she was in hospital. It captures the strain of mental illness on an increasingly desperate family.
Any humour is almost too dark, from the main character not being "on trend" enough to self-harm to Emma Stone "only" being a size six. It touches uncomfortably on reality, avoiding glamourising as much as possible. It displays spinal bruising due to excessive sit-ups and it discusses the easiest foods to binge and purge and the family’s very real fear of her death. In addition, the promotional content, while again imperfect, discusses Lily Collins’s own frail figure due to the weight loss for the movie (under the supervision of the director, specialists and nutritionists).
This graphic representation is what is causing controversy and much discomfort. Obsessive calorie counting (in the movie ‘calorie Asperger’s’) is something many charities and clinics will try to avoid as much as possible, yet is real in this depiction (and causes other patients difficulty). Ellen has dropped out of college and this is relatable; I have friends who have dropped out due to mental health disorders. What is also relatable is that the movie does not end in a miraculous recovery (thankfully). Yes, there is an awkward revelation-esque dream scene, but she returns to the clinic. Her mental state may be better but this is a new step, a new stage in recovery, instead of the end.
I understand why mental health advocates are unhappy with the notion that this could give people damaging ideas or be an irresponsible aspiration, but it is also important to face the realities of disorders and raise awareness in those who do not understand it. This is a very visible depiction of the physical impact of mental disorders. Whilst people ignore the fact that depression causes headaches, pains and tiredness, it is impossible not to see the effects of anorexia in life, as in this movie. This is not a beautiful movie; in fact, going against typical stereotypes of anorexia, it is not even about aiming to be beautiful, hardly touching on the roots of Ellen’s disorder at all. It may not display all aspects of eating disorders, or be representative of all experiences (there has also been criticism for its lack of diversity and its use of the archetypal middle class teenage anorexic) but it does frankly start an honest discussion about the realities of such disorders.
'To The Bone' is not a documentary, but I would argue that it is realistic fiction about anorexic recovery. It has awkward clunky moments, the dialogue is pushy and there is only minor resolution, but that is because the journey is not over. Ellen is still on her path to recovery, as many people suffering from eating disorders will remain for a long time; an important discussion point often forgotten. Overall, a well-timed Facebook status by a dear friend of mine, who is in recovery for an eating disorder, summed up how I felt about the movie “There are 13 Reasons Why I am worried about watching a film so close To The Bone. Striking a nerve is not one of them. But a bad script is.”
If you are, or think you are, suffering from an eating disorder, or any other kind of food-related illness, please contact a doctor or find help using any of these services:
B-eat, the UK’s eating disorder charity : https://www.b-eat.co.uk/
The Samaritans : http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us
University of St Andrews Student Services : https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/studentservices/
University of St Andrews Nightline: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/nightline/
The official trailer: