Films containing subject matter of death or disease, particularly the ones that aim for a teenage audience, tend to be sappy (like My Sister’s Keeper), melodramatic and even deeply misguided, if done wrong. I tend to cringe whenever I hear about another film tacking such subject, but in the case of Netflix’s To the Bone (out Friday), I was quite intrigued.
First of all, there’s the involvement of director Marti Noxon, a talented screenwriter of both TV (due to contributions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and film (such as the upcoming dramatic film The Glass Castle and the video-game adaptation Tomb Raider). The subject matter is deeply personal to Noxon, as she went through the same experiences as the lead character.
And second of all is the involvement of actress Lily Collins. Ever since I saw her in Mirror Mirror (which I think is an underrated treat), I found her to be a lovely presence on screen, which films like Rules Don’t Apply and Love, Rosie prove. But she has never been truly tested with her acting potential and To the Bone seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. And once again, it helps that Collins also has a personal relation to said subject matter, having gone through similar experiences earlier in her life.
And finally, I myself have gone through a similar, although not as intense, experience. At a young age, I was severely underweight and would usually bribe my parents for playtime, rather than eat anything. It was so severe to the point where I would just throw school lunches my mother made just to go out and play. It was once even suggested that I would have been forced to consume food intravenously.
So, will To the Bone escape the genre trappings and become a worthy entry, or will it sink into the afterschool-special abyss, where it will repeat at 2:00 in the afternoon for eternity?
Lily Collins stars as Ellen, an unruly 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the supposedly better part of her teenage years going through various recovery programs, only to find herself getting worse every time. Determined to find a solution, her self-serving family (consisting of Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Liana Liberato and Brooke Smith) agrees to send her to a group home for youths, which is led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves, playing a doctor for the third time).
With the help of her similarly afflicted bunkmates (consisting of Alex Sharp, Ciara Bravo, Maya Ashet, Kathryn Prescott, Leslie Bibb and others), will she go on the path to recovery and achieve self-acceptance?
Does the film deal with its issues effectively and does it execute it in a manner that is both illuminating, cinematic and thought-provoking? For the most part, yes. First of all, it is admirable that the film is not majorly about dealing with an eating disorder, but it is about finding the love and acceptance about one’s self, which director Marti Noxon conveys quite well.
There are no scenes where Ellen would magically eat or where she undergoes a complete change. It is all about the struggle before the triumph and Noxon executes it in a palatable fashion; with no overuse of music, acting histrionics and most importantly, very little audience pandering.
What Noxon does is that she leavens the film and its subject manner with a good use of surprising humour. Whether the humour is good-natured (“Lucas rhymes with mucus”, Alex Sharp jokes), dry (Keanu Reeves certainly contributes on that front) or even dark (“If you die, I will fucking kill you.”, Liana Liberato states), it lends a certain warmth to the film, as well as a sense of honesty that speaks on a personal level.
The same honesty even applies to the drama, particularly in the third act, where Ellen hits, according to Reeves’ character Dr. Beckham, “bottom”. Without spoilers, the moments in the third act, and how they culminate, are beautiful, scary, confusing, and absurd; it had me by surprise that Noxon stuck with her guns to portray those moments sincerely. Some of the images (whether physical or metaphorical) may provoke controversy, but again, it all feels personal and it has enough cinematic panache to come off as truly compelling.
It helps immensely that the cast assembled for To the Bone give strong performances. Lily Collins finally gets a leading role where she can exercise her acting chops and she does really well, whether it is acting out the character’s cynical side, her gradual love of herself as well as others or of course, her vulnerable side.
As for the supporting cast, Keanu Reeves does dry in the way only he can do it (for clear evidence, see Thumbsucker), and he does it well, providing some amusingly dry humour. Carrie Preston is convincingly paternal and verbose as Ellen’s stepmother and Lili Taylor is fantastic as the guilt-wracked mother of Ellen. The scenes she shares with Collins, particularly in the third act, are effective and affecting.
The young cast are all solid in their roles, with Alex Sharp turning up the charm without the creepiness that male love interests on film often have; Liana Liberato lending heart to the film with her sisterly reactions with Collins and Leslie Bibb, who is cast-against-type as a similarly afflicted pregnant woman, as highlights.
On the negative side, there are some moments where the humour and dramatic moments may irk some, due to the fact that it is present in a film with such grim subject matters and the character archetypes do imply a certain vibe that this story could only happen on film. But there is enough truth and honesty in the film that it will have an emotional impact. It is a credit to Noxon and the cast that To the Bone works as well as it does, considering my reservations of the genre as well as my personal inclinations.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
To The Bone premieres worldwide on Netflix this Friday, July 14th.
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