One of the many toils of addiction, under-acknowledged by films and novels, is the frustration felt by an addict’s family and friends. Anger is inseparable from sadness, impotence, and terror, and to carry this cauldron of emotions for years is to be brought to a brink in which people often show their most shameful qualities. In To the Bone, writer-director Marti Noxon dramatizes the emotional push-and-pull between an anorexic young woman and her family with haunting and unusually lived-in precision and empathy. Noxon’s scenes keep hitting you in unexpected places, as characters oscillate from heroes to self-absorbed bullies and back again under the strain of unending pressure, occasionally arriving at places of unexpected grace.
Ellen (Lily Collins) has been in and out of residential centers for years, with frequent hospitalizations to feed her through a tube. We’re told that she’s not far from the point in which her body, out of fat, will begin to digest muscle. Noxon lingers on close-ups of Ellen’s body, which has hair sprouting in unusual places and bones sticking out at distressing angles. Ellen has bruises on her back because she obsessively does sit-ups, and she can rattle off the precise caloric information of any food, as she’s convinced that eating a full meal will cause her to spiral into obesity. This irrationality contextualizes the disreputable contempt we feel for anorexics, who cringe in terror from food—a resource any human should be grateful to have. Obese people are also treated by our society with contempt, but understanding anorexia requires extra empathetic will, partially because it’s associated with people’s vanity.
Given this social contempt for anorexics, and the fact that it isn’t a chic and oft-dramatized addiction like drug use or alcoholism, which are frequently used as fodder for theatrically masculine self-pity, To the Bone is under self-imposed pressure to matter and to clear the prejudicial air in the room. One of the film’s great qualities, then, is its casualness and willingness to be simply human and to not let sociological politics dominate, reducing Ellen to a variety of symbols. Noxon stages scenes with a sense of rapt pregnancy, regarding characters silently as they survey one another. The filmmaker drinks them in, loving them, offering unusual textures and curlicues that speak of tender and often boldly comic curiosity.
Early in the film, Ellen’s stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston), weighs Ellen and takes a picture of her with her shirt pulled up. Showing Ellen the image, Susan asks her if she thinks her body is beautiful. Susan initially suggests a caricature of the L.A. status seeker, prattling on about Pier One and other banalities while her step-daughter’s clearly miserable, yet there’s an inchoate kindness trapped inside of this woman. It’s evident when she drops Ellen off at another residential treatment center, advising her to be good, but “not too good—not perfect.” The majestic, awkward generosity of that line is heartbreaking, speaking of a woman who loves this girl who baffles her, and who understands, through a sisterhood of women, that Ellen’s disease is partially a magnification of insidious and demoralizing social pressure.
Ellen’s new treatment facility brings her under the care of the celebrated Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), threatening to take To the Bone into pat Good Will Hunting territory. One wishes that Ellen had been less standardly drawn as an exceptional artist waiting to blossom—the sort of thing that speaks more to Hollywood formula than practical experience and plays against Noxon’s strengths. But the filmmaker knows when to sidestep cliché. Beckham is seen only sparingly, in the sidelines as a paternal ghost who suggests a nicer version of Ellen’s unseen father, who can’t be bothered to attend her family therapy session, which devolves into a litany of accusations. In a less imaginative film, either Beckham or Ellen’s hippie mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), would be Ellen’s savior, but that rests on Ellen and, surprisingly, on Susan as well as Ellen’s adoring half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato).
Ellen’s evolution also springs from Luke (Alex Sharp), the lone male anorexic of the residential facility who falls instantly in love, having followed her controversial artwork online for years. Noxon knows that she’s in Y.A. terrain that could cheapen the unresolved power of her addiction narrative, though these are pitfalls that she sidesteps with agility. Ellen and Luke’s romance is bracingly weird and specific to their uncertainty and self-hatred. The sight of Luke laughing with Ellen as she chews Chinese food and spits it out is worth a hundred breathless rom-com proclamations, bespeaking of acceptance and the happiness that can be unconventionally achieved under the hood of sickness. Luke can be obnoxious and overbearing, but he looks at Ellen and sees her, and he has the courage to own his personal vulnerability. Luke isn’t likened to “the one.” Rather, he’s a special connection that might steer a life on course, refuting Ellen’s sense of her own meaninglessness. Or not. Noxon understands that the only truthful ending to such a story is no ending.