About 10 minutes into Marti Noxon’s eating-disorder drama, To the Bone, Ellen (Lily Collins) sneaks away from her overbearing stepmom, Susan (Carrie Preston), to chug warm water from a public-bathroom faucet (a trick to fool the body into thinking it’s full so that it will burn more calories). A fellow “’rexie” bursts into the restroom — they’re at a facility to see if they’re eligible for radical treatment — and questions Ellen: “So you had some crazy fan or something?”
Ellen barely reacts. She flutters her eyes, then lights a cigarette. The “crazy fan,” we find out later, is a young woman who became obsessed with Ellen’s caustic, anorexia-themed artwork on Tumblr and killed herself. This storyline, which is teased out subtly, is an emotional touchstone for Ellen. Collins gets a lot of mileage out of every minute facial movement, and it’s understandable that any real person would be deflective whenever people bring up such a topic, but her flat reactions are not quite dramatically interesting to watch. That’s the problem in a nutshell with this startlingly authentic film about a young woman’s long road to recovery — Ellen is a character who literally wants to disappear from her own story.
The few times we see her really react are when she’s trading jabs with her stepmother’s Latina housekeeper (Joanna Sanchez) or her earnest stepsister, Kelly (Liana Liberato). The latter is but a teen yet a saving grace of sanity, the only one who can tell Ellen that she wants her to live without it sounding like a selfish request. Otherwise, Ellen’s stuck with her mom (Lily Taylor) and mom’s wife, Olive (Brooke Smith), who are prone to hysterics and can’t seem to stop arguing with Susan long enough to focus their attention on the girl vanishing before them.
When Ellen is in treatment in a tough-love group home, she becomes even more passive. She’s surrounded by bigger personalities, such as the unicorn-obsessed, infantile Pearl (Maya Eshet), who’s so sick she has to be fed through a tube. But Luke (Alex Sharp), a former British ballet wunderkind prone to theatrical outbursts of jazz standards, is the biggest of all.
Luke is at first annoying, citing Raymond Chandler as his “muse,” carrying a copy of Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence around like a Bible. But as Noxon turns her focus on Luke’s burgeoning friendship with Ellen, he becomes a full and fleshy character and role model, not just for Ellen but for the viewer. He’s positive. He believes he can recover. His humor is not used as a defense mechanism. As the most charismatic person in the story, one who slowly but steadily recovers, Luke functions to romanticize getting well, not staying sick.
Noxon has said that this story is loosely based on her own experience with eating disorders, and her film is infused with some stark and horrific truths — the frank talk about calories, about the bingeing and purging. (“Ice cream’s my favorite. It comes up easiest.”) But accurate onscreen portrayals of disorders and mental illness may be at odds with the demands of Hollywood: Movies star beautiful people, speaking lines that are better than what we hear in real life, inherently romanticizing the affliction being portrayed. The evidence here suggests that “accurate” and “entertaining” may be mutually exclusive. Still, though To the Bone isn’t quite enjoyable to watch, it’s acted well and is, in its depiction of this all too pervasive disorder, essential.