by Ken Bakely
If there’s anything more disappointing than a misguided message film, it’s a middling one. Marti Noxon’s To the Bone intends to shine a light on the lives of those struggling with eating disorders – and, while it contains strong performances and a clear reverence for the stories it’s telling, the movie is clumsily directed and haphazardly written. It becomes a collection of coming-of-age clichés, romantic dramedy clichés, and poor character profiling. For a tale with such a strong emotional bent and immediate needs, Noxon stages scenes with a curious sense of detachment, as if fear of exploiting the subject matter begets reluctance to push for an intimate study of the material.
Ellen (Lily Collins), is a twenty-year-old artist who’s achieved some level of fame online. But a combination of depression and an already rough past have led her to a protracted battle with anorexia. After all other methods of treatment fail, she’s referred to an acclaimed specialist (Keanu Reeves), who directs her to an unorthodox inpatient program he supervises. It’s based out of a large, suburban house, populated by a handful of other young people who are at different stages of their treatment, overseen by a small team of therapists and nurses.
She finds it hard to connect with anyone at first, but warms to the upbeat Luke (Alex Sharp), a fellow anorexic patient who began struggling with the condition after a leg injury ended a promising career as a dancer. Each of the patients at the home have their own ways of skirting the rules and dealing with the various problems they encounter, and together, they’re an eccentric bunch. But difficulties on the road to recovery are never far away, and new physical, mental, and emotional obstacles are often right around the corner.
A cursory glance at the plot sets off alarm bells. Quirky, sick young people, all in the same space, and two of them might fall in love? It reads like a non-stop ride on the Trope Express. To the Bone walks a dangerous tightrope, and Noxon realizes this. But she overcompensates, and instead of playing down the predictable developments that the plot brings about, she reduces the entire movie, diluting the impact of its otherwise uncluttered depictions of the disorders therein. Many times, it’s laid out for Ellen: if she continues to lose weight, her body will fall even more out of sorts, and she will die. If the script were punchier and more vivid, these moments would land with a sting. Instead, it’s treated with the same informational sameness as Richard Wong’s muted, static cinematography. From top to bottom, this has the feeling of a film made much blander than it should ever be.
Yet there’s no discounting To the Bone’s many achievements, and most of them revolve around Lily Collins’ performance. Her role is physical, but not just in the sense of anything that she specifically does. Instead, her best work comes through conveying the very discomfort her character feels with her own body, stick-thin and exhausted, with bruises on her back from the sit-ups she does to burn off the few calories she consumes. She tells people that she isn’t well, but can’t bring herself to go down the path of making things better. An understanding of this critical juxtaposition is prominent in Collins’ acting, and does great work in conveying why Ellen is the way she is. And she’s even a good match for Sharp’s Luke, as they do their best to sell the otherwise dull dialogue which furthers what seems to be a legally required relationship in any movie where the characters are of different genders.
This all comes together and makes for a movie made with good intentions, but carved from a boring template. It’s important to have more stories about otherwise mocked or forgotten aspects of our society, and Noxon must be praised for her attempts to make a film dealing so honestly with eating disorders, but it’s dishonest to give To the Bone a pass for its logline. For every bold idea forwarded, for every strong and dedicated performance, there’s a derivative character twist, or supporting parts which are more types than people. There’s potential within this screenplay for a darkly witty and insightful take on this material. But it has to feel more like a confident feature project and less like an ad-tailored, John Green-ified,* network pilot for Tuesday nights at 8.
*Actually, I like John Green. I even pre-ordered his new book. What’re you gonna do, sue me over it?