Netflix Originals have found themselves the subject of controversy in recent months. 13 Reasons Why, released to much fanfare in March this year, was criticised by a number of mental health groups, with advocates suggesting that the depiction of suicide was potentially dangerous and questionable in its perceived glamorisation of suicide. Now its latest effort, To the Bone, has been scrutinised for the manner in which anorexia is portrayed.
Lily Collins, a former sufferer of an eating disorder herself, stars as Ellen, a twenty-year-old college dropout and artist, who has already participated in a number of in-patient programmes. Thus far these programmes have proven to be unsuccessful, and the narrative begins with Ellen being asked to return to her father, stepmother and stepsister due to her perceived poor influence on the other patients. Ellen’s mother, now remarried, has moved to Phoenix, neglecting to keep Ellen with her, citing her disorder as being too difficult to deal with at present. It is immediately apparent that the narrative is hoping to implicate Ellen’s dysfunctional family (her father lacks interest, and fails to attend a parent/ patient interview later on) as well as the impact her art has had on others. Her Tumblr page, which featured Ellen’s art, was referenced in the suicide note of a fan, and Ellen has subsequently found herself blamed for creating damaging art. Ellen is asked to join a programme run by Doctor Beckham (Keanu Reeves), in which she will live in a house with other patients. It is this experience that serves as the majority of the narrative.
Collins is certainly dedicated to her role and, as has been widely reported, lost a significant amount of weight to portray an anorexia sufferer. Her Ellen is engaging, and successfully serves as the film’s focal point. But Collins’ performance alone is not enough to help this film become anything more than, what is essentially, a one-note drama that is more likely to be viewed on afternoon television. The plot is predictable, and only hints at issues that may highlight why girls in particular experience such eating disorders, with Ellen noting that her developing body attracted unwanted attention, and her restrictive eating was, in part, a response to that. Ultimately, though, the film lacks any intellectual or thoughtful discussion of such a disorder, and, has been suggested by those qualified to do so, can prove damaging to some viewers.
Before its release, the concept of To the Bone meant that it was always going to court controversy. Collins, and writer and director Marti Noxon, have been at pains to note that, being survivors of an eating disorder, they are both equipped to portray such an experience. Certainly, both are suitable to depict an experience familiar to them, but presenting such an experience as being universal is reductive. No experience of an eating disorder is truly familiar, and to suggest otherwise indicates to the viewer that there is one way of experiencing such a disorder, a concerning conceit. Perhaps, ultimately, the medium chosen should be questioned. Is film a suitable construct to discuss such an issue? Certainly To the Bone, is not.