To the Bone

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It is clearly hard to understand mental health issues if you’ve not been through them and impossible to write about them with any authenticity if you’ve not had that direct experience yourself. There are any number of films that have got it wrong from Psycho to last year’s Split and even those movies, like Silver Linings Playbook and Still Alice, that have a more realistic approach to the subject (meaning they don’t depict people as mad killers) tend to have a narrow focus only centering around conditions like depression and dementia. With To the Bone though we appear to have a movie that promises a sensitive portrayal of a rarely dramatised sickness that effects three million people in any given year, mostly teens and young adults and mostly females, and is largely based on the experiences of two of the women who made it.

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Marti Noxon, the film’s writer/director, and Lily Collins, its lead actor both suffered from anorexia in their early years (Collins is only 28 now) and clearly To the Bone carries with it strong autobiographical elements. Certainly the movie aims to take an insightful and respectful look at its subject and does much to highlight the details of what is a widespread and, like most mental health diagnoses, misunderstood disorder.

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Yet despite this pedigree the film has generated a considerable amount of criticism. Many have argued that it is irresponsible in the way it glamorises anorexia and fails to properly examine the causes. Some have gone as far as to say that it may actually inspire youngsters to stop eating in an attempt to try and achieve unhealthy body images like those presented on screen. Writing in the Guardian, film and fashion journalist Hadley Freeman condemned the characterisation of Collin’s protagonist saying she was ‘beautifully styled in the universally recognised signifiers of crazy-but-sexy young women: heavy kohl eyeliner and mascara, distressed clothing and biker boots’ before going on to say how really really unlike most anorexia patients this is, many of whom suffer cracked skin and hair loss. She also took issue with the story’s romantic subplot arguing that intimate liaisons would be the last thing on anyone’s mind in this situation.

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There is even an online petition against the movie asking distributors Netflix to pull it from their streaming site. The organisers of this suggest that To the Bone is dangerous and could do much to undermine all of the good work done by advocacy associations who over the years have worked to educate the public about the true nature of this illness.

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In response to these significant objections Noxon has said that the story is based specifically on her own experiences but that she did run the script past a number of medical and therapy specialists before filming began. It is of note that most of those who have taken strongly against the movie have had anorexia themselves and this has to be respected; as stated at the start it is hard to properly understand the issues if you have not been through them. 

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Wearing my own lack of experience here on my sleeve, I think there are strengths in both arguments. You can tell that there are very specific details in the script that can only have come from someone who lived through this and much is done to raise awareness of the condition. At the same time the protagonist looks a lot more like the lead actress in a Hollywood film that most women in her circumstances do. She does look painfully thin when she removes her shirt but not really the rest of the time and anorexia is demonstrably not something that can be cured or hidden with a baggy jumper. 

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This said, while the film skirts around the physical aspects of anorexia, it does not shirk away from the emotional impact of what the lead character is going though. The fact that in places, with young women living together in a care hospice, it plays out like a sorority house movie only serves to make the tragedy all the more shocking when it comes. 

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For me To the Bone was a mixed bag. Collin’s performance is strong but other characters are little more than plot devices and some, like Keanu Reeves’ unconventional doctor, are not really believable. Marti Noxon’s experience as a anorexia suffer does come through but so does her inexperience as a director. As a writer she has done a lot of work on things like Buffy and other teen and singles dramas, sometimes with horror elements and sometimes not, but this film needed a different approach. It needed something considerable less conventional.

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I think the biggest problem is that unlike that other controversial Netflix show this does nothing to present the reasons why. If it was going to be successful in preventing more cases of young people succumbing to this illness then it needed to flag the warning signs. No doubt I am speaking as a parent here but would it not be better to help people avoid getting into this situation as well as giving them the strength to get through it? Maybe there are just too many potential triggers and it is impossible to see coming. It doesn’t even say much about how you might get past it either though. It is all a little easily fixed at the end. I don’t want to say too much about the denouement but it all veers a little toward imagery and metaphor with Collins both literally and figuratively climbing a hill to salvation.

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With regards to Hadley Freeman’s point about the romance sub plot I do think this distracts and only makes the whole thing seem more artificial. It is hard to believe she would fall for anyone in this situation and it is almost as hard to believe she would fall for the guy in question. He is so full of affectations that he is just annoying. He is just one of too many things in the film that are not the same as they would be in real life.

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Still, in response to the criticisms of her film Noxon said that what she wanted it to do was start a conversation and for this you have to applaud it. 

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The Ripley Factor:
There are a few shots of Lily Collins in a dressed down state but these are clearly not designed to objectify her. More problematic is the way the men, deliberately or otherwise, are set up as her saviours. The main character is surrounded by women but it is the one male among her fellow patients and the male doctor that are her potential road to salvation. This isn’t to take away from her own role in her journey but the impression given is that she owes them a lot. Her sister is the one other player who genuinely helps her but there remains a gender imbalance in this story of a woman suffering a predominantly female ailment.

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Is this one for the kids?
In the end this is the most important question. It isn’t a film for littluns, it is rated 15, due in part to some sweary spikiness on the part of the protagonist that the script seems to abandon ten minutes in. In terms of its suitability for teenagers though I think it is one they should watch. I don’t suppose it would prompt any imitative behaviour unless someone is already vulnerable and I do believe it has some valuable educational benefit. In the end, Hollywoodised or not I think those depicted as suffering from anorexia are shown to be otherwise normal kids (apart from the guy) and this is an important message.

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