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Sundance Film Review: ‘To the Bone’

Variety logo Variety 1/22/2017 Peter Debruge
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Point a camera at someone in the far, far distance, but keep the focus trained on the foreground, and that person takes on an almost extra-terrestrial quality, like some sort of spun-sugar stick figure, or a walking skeleton. “To the Bone” opens with just such a shot: That reed-thin silhouette advancing toward us is Ellen (an alarmingly frail Lily Collins), an anorexic young woman who’s been through four different treatment centers for her eating disorder. The film tells the story of Ellen’s fifth and final in-patient experience — it’s not an easy sit, nor an terribly entertaining one, but in the hands of writer-director Marti Noxon, it delivers painful insights in a relatively fresh way.

While not downright irreverent, this is the kind of anorexia movie where characters crack jokes about not wanting to visit the Holocaust Museum, lest they feel guilty for starving themselves. “To the Bone” would hardly qualify as a comedy, but it doesn’t take the kid-gloves approach either — in fact, its attitude seems almost ruthlessly pitiless at times — owing to the fact that it was inspired at least in part by Moxon’s own autobiographical experience (as a teen, she starved herself so severely that her heart stopped).

Considering Moxon’s accomplished CV as a writer-producer on such feisty shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “UnREAL,” and “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” it’s a bit counterintuitive that she chose the most TV-appropriate subject of her career to serve as her big-screen directorial debut. And yet, Noxon’s sharp enough to know just how to avoid the melodramatic pitfalls that would have made her script play like just another disease-of-the-week special. Plus, the story is inspired at least in part by her own autobiographical experience, which could explain the almost ruthlessly pitiless attitude she shows her main character.

As far as Ellen’s family is concerned, she may as well be dying before their eyes — and it’s hard not to agree with them. Through some combination of weight loss, visual effects, and makeup (darkened eye sockets, exaggerated shadows around the cheekbones and collarbone), Collins looks more like a Goth zombie or corpse than your typical moody teen. She’s a talented artist, but doesn’t sketch much — not since an incident with her Tumblr feed had a disastrous impact on a fellow “rexie.” And she’s got a clever take on the world, even if she hasn’t quite decided that she wants to stick around and live in it.

That latter aspect of her personality is both the crux of her condition and the aspect that makes her a somewhat frustrating character to watch. After all, movies are most compelling when they serve up a motivated character with clear-cut goals and a ticking-clock deadline on which to achieve them. Ellen’s problem is that she’s impassive, disengaged from life, and potentially suicidal in one of the slowest-motion means possible. Everyone else — from her step-mom (Carrie Preston) and half-sister (Liana Liberato) to her touch-and-go mom (Lili Taylor), now a lesbian — is clearly rooting for Ellen’s recovery. But as any therapist can tell you, healing only happens when the patient wants to get better.

Speaking of therapists, “To the Bone” supplies a rather unconventional one in the form of Keanu Reeves’ Dr. William Beckham. He runs a Los Angeles-based group home called Threshold, where Ellen agrees to spend at least six weeks with a mix of other girls. From the opening scene, we know that she doesn’t typically mix well with other eating-disorder patients, and yet, something is different about this gang — though it’s not at all clear what, exactly. There’s a pregnant woman at risk of losing her fetus, and an emotionally stunted girl so critical that she’s been intubated (Ellen freaks her out further when she divulges that each feed sac packs 1,500 calories). And then there’s Luke, Threshold’s lone male residen, an ex-Londoner whose dance career was cut short after he injured his knee.

In a more conventional, crowd-pleasing version of this story, Ellen would bond with her housemates and fall in love Luke — and Noxon works in enough of that to keep audiences interested. But the idea isn’t to make Ellen’s recovery seem fun. Fortunately, Collins possesses that inner brilliance, call is “star quality,” that conveys the potential that might be snuffed out if Ellen did succumb, which helps keep us invested, even amid the movie’s weakest stretch, when her character hits rock bottom. Meanwhile, its strongest — which takes place in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Rain Room — leaves both Ellen and the audience feeling blissfully alive.

Ultimately, “To the Bone” works because Noxon has been through what Ellen is experiencing, right down to picking a name that suits her better (“Marti” was born Martha, and Ellen rechristens herself “Eli” at Dr. Beckham’s suggestion). And though the film is thick with scenes of counseling and introspection, it never crosses into that toxically self-indulgent zone of therapy-through-filmmaking. Instead, it feels as if Noxon has long since worked out these issues in herself, and now she’s paying it forward, offering the world a film with some of the wisdom she learned through experience. That still doesn’t make it an especially pleasant movie to watch, but it is one that just might save a few lives.

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