Of all the many ways the human psyche can turn on itself, anorexia nervosa might be among the most frightening and hard to comprehend. Writer and director Marti Noxon tackles the subject in her first feature To the Bone, which premiered on Netflix streaming this July. I first saw the film at Sundance with the director in attendance. Noxon's a beautiful woman in her 50s with an illustrious career as a television and film producer (her work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mad Men, to name a few). Seeing the director in the Q&A right after a story she created all about young women hoping to be slight enough to fold themselves into an envelope, you can't help but notice how small she is. Indeed, the film is inspired by her own struggles with eating disorders as a teenager, and she's healthy now. But still, her tiny frame suggests the scary truth that a diagnosis like that never fully leaves you.
Lily Collins stars as Ellen, a brooding 20-year-old girl in the throes of her disorder. We first meet Ellen at her third inpatient facility during an art therapy session that doesn't seem to be having much of an effect. She leaves the hospital in the care of her well-meaning, if not overbearing stepmother, played by Carrie Preston. Ellen's close with her half-sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), who's concerned and somewhat flummoxed by the diagnosis. ("If you die, I'll kill you," Kelly says.) Ellen's father is ostensibly "in the picture" but never actually shows up for any scenes. Perpetually, he is on his way home from work, which is movie language for a proud man who cares about his family but is afraid of his feelings. Ellen's mother (Lili Taylor) lives with another woman in Phoenix. They're hippies with horses and, like everyone else, they want Ellen to get better, but have no clue how to help her.
But have no fear, because Keanu Reeves is here! He plays Dr. Beckham with particular authority and exhaustion. A practitioner with unconventional methods who runs an inpatient clinic for ED sufferers, he's been at this a long time, eschewing a family of his own in pursuit of helping young women get better. He's based on Noxon's real-life doctor, and I believe and am charmed by every word that comes out of his mouth.
The film deftly convinces us that Dr. Beckham might be Ellen's last hope for getting better. Through conspicuous examples and only slightly stilted exposition, To the Bone educates us on the ins and outs of the diagnosis. For one, it doesn't shy away from showing us gaunt bodies. Collins lost some weight for the role and body doubles and CGI do the rest. The women are sadly clad in leg warmers and sweaters because thin girls are always cold, and those bruises down Ellen's back come from all the compulsive sit ups she does at night to soothe a restless mind. In group therapy, a counselor explains that anorexia functions like any other addiction; the obsession to quell hunger produces a euphoric high, which is really just the mind's way of avoiding painful feelings.
Knowing all this does little to quell our mounting frustration. Watching the film a second time, I was even more impatient with Ellen, who has everything going for her but still can't seem to conquer the thing inside of her that makes her act so contrary to her body's best interests. Repeatedly acting out habits that are bad for us. Who could ever relate to that, except for everyone all of the time?