Illnesses in film are often mistreated, over-simplified, or not given enough focus in the proper ways. Most of the time they deal with how the family of the ill is dealing with the situation and, while that’s important, the ill person in question is often overlooked and underrepresented. To the Bone tackles anorexia and one young woman’s struggle to get better and find worth in living. It isn’t always a smooth road and the story eventually cuts good development for an epiphany; but the film’s primary attention goes to its main character attaining the realization of wanting to fight her anorexia instead of giving into it and does it with a decent amount of depth.
To the Bone opens with Ellen (Lily Collins) leaving a rehab facility (one in a long line of rehab centers) and going back to stay with her stepmom (Carrie Preston), her sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato), and her constantly absent father. Kelly doesn’t quite understand the reasons behind Ellen’s anorexia (something the film doesn’t really get into very much, either). What she does understand is that she doesn’t want her sister to die.
Eventually, Ellen finds her way to Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). Dr. Beckham has a different kind of facility and treatment that gives Ellen more of an upfront, challenging, and truthful attitude toward overcoming her anorexia. While at the treatment, Ellen meets a group of different young people who are suffering from various things, including bulimia. But it’s Luke (Alex Sharp) who really befriends Ellen and allows a sense of optimism into their friendship. But even though she is getting help, finding friends, and being told that life is worth living, Ellen has to realize this and want it for herself.
To the Bone has a clear direction with where it wants to go. It has no real interest in finding the reasons behind Ellen’s anorexia (Ellen herself says she’s not quite sure of it herself). It ultimately allows her to go on this journey of self worth and realization that she can continue going down the road she has been, or face the facts of her illness and seek to fight it. Often, she’s asking, “What’s the point?” This is especially the case when Dr. Beckham tells her that there is no point in life, no real meaning, and that you just have to work with what you’ve got. And it’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves before. Why do something, why work so hard if it all amounts to nothing in the end? What do we have to live for? It’s in these questions that Ellen finds herself lost in trying to embrace their answers.
Director and writer Marti Noxon balances heavy material with some lighter touches so that it never gets too dark. After all, illnesses and disorders such as this are a very tightrope to walk. The film simplifies some aspects of anorexia to make its point, and this is especially true in the end when it takes a shortcut for Ellen to reach her realization. But its strengths lie in the exploration of Ellen and her psyche within the relationships she has with other characters.
Ellen loves her mother (Lili Taylor), but is frustrated that she has largely made her illness about her. Her sister’s frustrations lie in the fact that Ellen’s struggle with anorexia have taken her sister from her in the most important moments of her life. And Luke carries a sense of hope and a spark for life that Ellen has largely lost. Through these interactions, Ellen is shaped into more of full-fledged person and the relationships never become about anyone but her.
Ultimately, To the Bone is a more meaningful look at the struggles of coping with an illness like anorexia and has a bit more depth than most other films of this nature allow. Lily Collins in particular delivers a strong performance and the supporting cast is wonderful. By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Ellen will continue to struggle, but at least she comes to a very distinct realization about her life that will direct her in these struggles. Inspired by the director's own struggles with anorexia, the film definitely feels more authentic than most.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5