There’s been a fair share of vague and slightly orchestrated-feeling hand-wringing over the Netflix film To the Bone, which is loosely based on writer-director Marti Noxon’s experiences as a young woman shuttled between eating-disorder-treatment programs. The worry over the “triggering” nature of the film has escalated to the degree that Noxon sent out a statement with review screeners of the film. “My goal with the film was not to glamorize EDs, but to serve as a conversation starter about an issue that is too often clouded by secrecy and misconceptions,” Noxon writes. “I hope that by casting a little light into the darkness of this disease we can achieve greater understanding and guide people to help if they need it.”
Are eating disorders really so shrouded in mystery, though? Certainly compulsive-eating and males-with-eating-disorders stories are rarely told in pop culture, despite the latter accounting for one in three diagnoses in the U.S. (To be fair, there are male and overweight characters in the movie’s supporting cast.) But the story of white, middle- to upper-class young women, as Lily Collins’s Ellen is, starving themselves and trading “tricks” to get out of eating mom’s meatloaf? That is just the story of mainstream American female existence. You don’t need to have suffered or be suffering from an eating disorder to be triggered by To the Bone. You just need to have been a teenage girl at some point in your life.
Early in the film, Ellen cutely cracks her knuckles and makes a macabre show of her “calorie Aspergers,” her name for her ability to recite the caloric content of everything on her plate, seemingly from memory. It’s disturbing, unless you’ve ever read a single issue of Shape magazine (which Collins is on the cover of this month). The image of Ellen, gaunt and dark-circled and perpetually draped in baggy clothes, is meant to be sobering and shocking. But as she’s being driven through the L.A. suburbs to her latest group home, gazing out the car window in her oversize shades, all I saw was Mary Kate Olsen. Worse, for a dark, fleeting moment, the lizard-brain part of myself that will always be frustrated that I’m not a size zero thought, Wow, her neck looks great. Noxon may say she’s not trying to glamorize an anorexic lifestyle, and I have no reason not to believe her, but an unimaginative, Lifetime-ready production like To the Bone does not have the guts to deglamorize the anorexic look.
Noxon comes from the TV world, having written for critic-favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, UnREAL, and Mad Men, for which she’s won multiple awards. There’s no doubt she’s a talented writer, but if anything, the movie lays bare the fundamental artistic differences between television and film, which makes its home on Netflix all the more appropriate: To the Bone never feels like a film, in part because it never takes advantage of all the liberties one has in directing an independent movie compared to an episode of network television. An emotionally devastating scene near the end of the movie, which focuses on a single nurturing act between Ellen and her mother (Lili Taylor) could have been shot and edited in a way that elevated the entire film to something approaching art. But despite what’s supposed to be the overwhelming intimacy of the scene, Noxon keeps her distance.
So when Noxon says she wants to “cast light” on this experience, especially one so personal, I can’t help but feel as though she’s failed. It’s not as if there’s no place for a film about a young woman’s struggles with eating disorders, but there’s such an opportunity for a film about anorexia that goes past the ribs and cheekbones of its subject into something more interior and subjective. Noxon worked closely with the ED recovery organization Project Heal to make sure she covered all her bases, and the script name-checks every ED “thing” in the book, from laxatives to compulsive exercise to arm fuzz to menstruation cessation. But the filmmaking is as polite and clinical as a junior-high health class, getting no closer to its subjects than a teacher armed with a laser pointer.
And like junior-high health class, for the most susceptible viewers, To the Bone will inevitably serve as an instruction manual. Production stills of Collins will show up on the same kinds of pro-ana blogs on which her character gains notoriety. But that doesn’t make To the Bone controversial. It just makes it incredibly, boringly normal.