Not 100% sure if “de-fetishizes” is actually a word, but we’ll power through nonetheless.
Synopsis: “A young woman is dealing with anorexia. She meets an unconventional doctor who challenges her to face her condition and embrace life.”
Show of hands. Who looks at this synopsis and immediately thinks “lame Lifetime movie of the week?” Yeah? Me too. There is a bit of overlap with the content of the film, but stylistically and in terms of the actors’ performances – it’s a step-up. Lily Collins makes “Ellen” feel like more than just a cautionary tale or an amalgamation of eating disorder clichés. She imbues her character with a sense of pained realism that almost makes To the Bone feel a bit more like Leaving Las Vegas rather than something starring Valerie Bertinelli.
To the Bone succeeds where other films in the same sub-genre fall short because it doesn’t fetishize the disease. Very often these films focus more on teaching an important lesson about eating disorders or doing their level-best to shock the audience with the kind of true-to-life body horror usually reserved for some Cronenberg-esque daydream, To the Bone is virtually devoid of this. Conversely there’s no excessive glamorizing of the disease either; if anything To the Bone comes at this topic with a pretty realistic, even-handed story about someone suffering from a disorder that’s all but left the national conversation.
By not fetishizing eating disorders, the director (Marti Noxon) actually makes the emotional headspace of her protagonist more accessible. A lot of filmmakers mistake “pity” for “empathy.” Usually in these kinds of movies the director goes to great lengths to illicit pity from the audience by making the person suffering from an eating disorder seem as pathetic and sad as possible, but that goes against the very nature of good storytelling. It hampers the audience’s ability to go on the ride with the main character because by making them so pathetic, it strips them of their humanity.
To the Bone goes the opposite route and re-humanizes the “girl with the eating disorder” cliché by making her someone you can actually empathize with. You may not have an eating disorder, but anyone can relate to the idea of feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you and the frustration of not knowing precisely what it is or even how to go about fixing it. No matter what the addiction, food, drugs, alcohol, exercise, movies – the idea of trying to control/mask a deeper problem by obsessing over something else is much more accessible. That accessibility makes the story more universal; taking something that’s conventionally “a girl’s problem” and turning it into something more relatable to a wider audience.
That unconventionality extends to the resolution of the film. Without going into too much detail, the trailer makes it seem like Keanu Reeves’ Dr. Beckham has the answer to Ellen’s problem, but To the Bone side-steps that common trope as well. Like most real-world problems, there’s no magic piece of advice or singular event that triggers a change. More often than not it’s several, seemingly unrelated, things that coalesce into what alcoholics refer to as, a moment of clarity. There’s kind of an off-kilter beauty to that kind of resolution that most films are too timid to acknowledge or even try for, usually because they’re afraid the audience won’t “get it” if it’s not spelled out for them.
Again, this is very much aimed at a younger audience, so don’t go in expecting some serious heavy-hitters at play. However, if you’re in the mood for a more PG-13 Leaving Las Vegas, To the Bone will scratch that itch.
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