The thing about Ellen is that no one’s going to get through to her, because she think she’s got it figured out. “I’m maintaining,” she insists, and that’s the best she can offer. “I’ve got it under control. Nothing bad is gonna happen.” And she says that so convincingly, as her cheeks get more hollow and her eyes get more black and her ribs poke through her skin and her tailbone is black and blue, that she almost sounds like she believes it. Throughout To The Bone, you see people who care about her – family, friends, doctors, fellow travelers – trying, really trying, to get through to her. And they’re failing, because logic doesn’t apply. She could just eat, but she just can’t eat. You can’t talk or reason someone out of that. And because To The Bone is a movie written from the inside out, that simple truth is clear from the first frame.
It’s the directorial debut of Marti Noxon, a writer revered in cult circles for her contributions to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, and the first (good) season of unREAL. She also wrote the screenplay, drawing from her own battles with anorexia to tell the story of 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins) and her stay at an intensive rehabilitation facility, run by the kind but bullshit-intolerant Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). She has problems: a troubled family, an inattentive father, a horrible death for which she shouldn’t blame herself, but does.
Yet as Dr. Beckham notes, “Looking for one reason is a losing battle.” To The Bone doesn’t attempt to explain Ellen, or even, really, to fix her; it observes her struggle, and tries to understand it (and, by extension, her complicated life). The characters are well defined but resist caricature: the type-A stepmom, the touchy-feely mother, the understanding sister, and the various types of “overachievers” in the group home where she goes to try, again, to get well.
“We know all the tricks,” explains the house nurse who runs the show (played, with lovely low-key naturalism, by Parks & Recreation’s Retta), and some of the most involving material in the film is simply the texture of the program – the logistics of how it works (confiscating not only electronic devices but vitamins, because they could be anything in a vitamin bottle), the lingo of the insiders (“I’m not restaurant-ready yet”), the hierarchy of their illnesses and how they interact.
All of which makes this new-on-Netflix movie sound particularly small screen-friendly – but Noxon’s specific voice, the wry wit of her words and the directness of her approach, help her side-step the TV-movie clichés. Her dialogue is right at home with Collins, who manages to maintain sympathy in spite of her stubbornness and self-destructiveness; the way she deadpans, “Thanks for that, I’m scared straight” is downright artful.
So the elements that sound hoary or hokey mostly play gracefully, thanks to the honesty of Noxon’s approach, and her recognition that moments of great emotion can be both powerful and a little silly. Take, as Exhibit A, her handling of Lili Taylor, who appears midway through as Ellen’s mother; she’s sort of dismissed as a flaky hippie, and is then reintroduced for the film’s climax. There, she earnestly floats a notion that seems ridiculous – comical, really. And then the movie just goes for it, to devastating effect, while still acknowledging its inherent goofiness. It’s a balancing act most directors couldn’t land on their tenth film; that Noxon does it on her first is sort of astonishing. Hers is a valuable and important voice, and To The Bone is not the last we’ll hear of it.
“To the Bone” is out today in limited release and streaming on Netflix.