Saturday, July 15, 2017

On Netflix: TO THE BONE (2017)

(Italy/US - 2017)

Written and directed by Marti Noxon. Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Brooke Smith, Leslie Bibb, Kathryn Prescott, Ciara Quinn Bravo, Maya Eshet, Lindsey McDowell, Retta, Joanna Sanchez, Alanna Ubach. (Unrated, 107 mins)

Anyone who's known someone suffering from anorexia nervosa will instantly recognize Ellen, the pale, gaunt, 20-year-old woman played by Lily Collins in the Netflix Original film TO THE BONE. You'll spot the body language, the posture, the hiding under oversized, baggy clothing, the way she moves her food around her plate rather than eating it. You've heard all the things Ellen says to those concerned about her: "I'm maintaining." "Nothing bad's gonna happen." "I've got it under control." And in your struggle to comprehend just what this person you care about is doing to themselves, you'll recognize the frustration of Ellen's younger half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato) when she bluntly says "I don't really get it, you know? Just...eat!" because you've said those same words. The makers of TO THE BONE come from that place: Collins (Phil's daughter) battled an eating disorder in her teens, and writer/director Marti Noxon (a veteran TV writer and producer best known for her work on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, GLEE, and most recently, CODE BLACK) spent most of her teens and 20s in and out of hospitals being treated for anorexia (when she was 17, Noxon weighed 70 lbs and was cast as Jennifer Jason Leigh's body double in the 1981 made-for-TV anorexia drama THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD. Noxon based a lot of TO THE BONE on her own experiences and in partnership with Collins, the the film really nails the psychology, the struggle, the frustration and the anger felt by all parties and the effect it has on family relationships and friendships.

In terms of Ellen and her psyche, TO THE BONE walks the walk--Noxon doesn't shy away from unpleasantries, whether it's her bruised spine from her obsessive, excessive sit-ups, the fact that she can't remember when she last menstruated, or the fur-like hair sprouting in unusual places as her emaciated body goes in defense mode and begins eating muscle in an effort to maintain itself.  But almost everywhere else, it's a by-the-numbers melodrama that's just about on the level of a disease-of-the-week TV-movie that these days would air on Lifetime. The supporting characters are a predictable collection of superficially diverse caricatures, whether it's Ellen's harping stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), who constantly makes excuses for the perpetual absence of her father, who's often-mentioned but never seen; her rustic, luddite mother Judy (Lili Taylor), who suffered from post-partum depression before outing herself and leaving her husband when Ellen was young (Moxon took this directly from her own bio); the girls in a group home in which she's committed to a six-week treatment program, including pregnant bulimic Megan (Leslie Bibb), whose miscarriage will be called by any seasoned moviegoer the moment she's introduced; the lone male in the therapy program, British ballet dancer Luke (Alex Sharp, who won a Tony for the 2015 Broadway production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME), who's combating anorexia and the possibility of his career ending over a knee injury, but whose most notable traits seem to be his wacky eccentricity and that he's extremely British.

There's also Keanu Reeves, who's starting to look completely lost in any movie whose title doesn't contain the words "John" and/or "Wick," as Dr. William Beckham, the kind of renegade, patchy-bearded, outside-the-box therapist that only exists in movies, with his edgy propensity for bluntly telling it like it is largely limited to his saying "fuck" a lot. TO THE BONE is sympathetic to its heroine while in no way glamorizing her or her condition in a world where impressionable young girls watching might get the wrong idea. But at the same time, TO THE BONE doesn't go far enough. This should be a harrowing, disturbing film that's hard to watch but far too often, it settles for being a quirky, YA indie about eating disorders that never misses an opportunity to play to convention and character tropes, from Ellen's tentative romance with Luke all the way to its vague yet assumed happy ending. Never is that quirkiness spotlighted more than in an already much-discussed scene late in the film that Noxon draws from a real-life experience that was obviously powerful for her but it just doesn't play onscreen. Collins, who did lose weight under medical supervision but was assisted in her performance by some effective makeup and occasional obvious insert shots from body doubles, really sells the state of Ellen's (rechristened "Eli" in therapy, as part of forming a new identity) condition, and for viewers of a certain younger age, TO THE BONE could very well become a classic for its generation and the kind of movie that will likely be shown in schools for years to come. And to give them the credit due, Noxon and Collins completely captured--with almost frightening accuracy--everything about a close friend I lost to an on-again/off-again, 25-year battle with anorexia that took finally took its toll in April 2017. I saw her in Collins' portrayal and in regards to just the depiction of Ellen, it's a degree of realism so high that anyone who has lived it--either as someone with an ED or someone close to them--will immediately "get" it. It's everything else about TO THE BONE that's just not up to that level.

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