Film & Television

Netflix Review: ‘To The Bone’ — Dying to be Thin

In To The Bone, Ellen is a 20-year old anorexic artist, who has been kicked out of multiple in-patient treatment programs for her infectious bad attitude. She is whip-smart, darkly sarcastic and doesn’t seem to care if she lives or dies. Her family life is a horror show; her mother and her mother’s lesbian partner have moved out west to work with therapeutic horses. “It’s not a good time” for them to deal with her. Her workaholic father is missing in action because “He cares too much.” Her small-minded stepmother Susan would be thoroughly unlikable if she weren’t the only parental figure trying to do something, however misguided. Only her stepsister treats Ellen like a person instead of a problem. But, she’s a child herself and terribly frightened.

In a last-ditch effort, Susan checks Ellen into a program run by an unconventional doctor. The Threshold Treatment Center is a group home with a strict rules and rewards system. There, Ellen meets a half dozen other patients, each with their own story and with their own methods of getting and staying thin (be warned, all that insider information is a bit difficult to watch at times). Interestingly, one patient is a slightly plump binge eater, but she isn’t given as much of a story; she seems a token at best. In scenes of group therapy, strained meals, and a single somewhat unbelievable outing, there’s plenty of gallows humor, driven mostly by Ellen. The set-up feels a lot like Girl Interrupted, but without the trips to the ice cream parlor. Although one bulimic resident points out that ice cream is the easiest food to bring back up again.

Despite the best efforts of the doctor and his staff, and the romantic advances of the home’s sole male patient (an injured ballet dancer), Ellen hits a crisis and runs away. There’s an awkward confrontation and even more awkward reconciliation with her mother, followed by a disturbing dream sequence. Finally, Ellen chooses life and we get a hopeful if not exactly happy ending.

To The Bone is fairly predictable stuff, but the dialogue is well-written and it’s beautifully acted by Collins. Her performance is as honest as one would hope given the nature of the material and her real-life connection to it. Her Ellen is often too smart and too aware for her own good. She has become an eating disorder savant. In fact, her stepsister accuses her of having “calorie Asperger’s.” It’s difficult for Ellen to respond to treatment when she is so thoroughly aware of her condition, what she should and shouldn’t be doing, and why she is who she is. She also carries a dark secret, which is revealed midway through the film to moving effect.

The rest of the cast is strong as well, particularly Liana Liberato and Carrie Preston as Ellen’s stepsister and stepmother, and Leslie Bibb as the so-called “unicorn,” a nearly impossibly pregnant anorexic. Tony-winner Alex Sharp is oddly endearing as the dancer Luke. Unfortunately, both Lili Taylor and Keanu Reeves are underutilized as Ellen’s birth mother and Threshold’s Dr. Beckham. This is especially true where Reeves is concerned. Beckham’s methods are touted as radical (it takes months to even get an appointment with him, let alone be admitted into his program). But, there’s no real breakthrough there. He’s a straight shooter in his meetings with Ellen. But, that’s about it.

To The Bone is a good movie about an important topic, but it peters out a bit at the end. The film (and its leading actress) does a fine job as a portrait of a patient, but doesn’t offer anything new. We care about Ellen and we wish her well. But, it would have been more interesting to watch her get well.

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