A young woman with anorexia checks into a group home overseen by a rather unconventional medical professional in To the Bone, the feature debut from screenwriter and small-screen writer-producer Marti Noxon (Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, UnReal). This semi-autobiographical story is an occasionally harrowing but sometimes also surprisingly warm and funny tale that, while the characters focus a lot on eating (or, rather, not eating), is really more about finding the will and self-love necessary to live rather than about dealing with an eating disorder.
This impressively accessible take on some very difficult issues benefits from the measured but relatable performances from Lily Collins and Alex Sharp, with the latter playing a young British dancer who is also a “rexie” and who becomes the lead’s confidant and maybe more, and an avuncular turn from Keanu Reeves as the youngsters’ doctor. With the right marketing and outreach, this could be a conversation starter on the art house circuit.
Gaunt and expressionless, Ellen (Collins) is first seen making a humorous but also offensive sign at what turns out to be her fourth in-patient treatment, which leads to her being kicked out again. A few quick scenes establish the situation back home in Los Angeles, where her father is never present; her occasionally borderline inappropriate, endlessly talkative but also somewhat frosty step-mom, Susan (Carrie Preston), tries to overcompensate; and Ellen’s half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato), is kinder but has secretly been suffering, too, from having to deal with having a “freak sister” with a disorder. Her real mom, Judy (Lili Taylor), “a lesbian with bipolar disorder,” as per Susan, has moved to Arizona to be with her no-nonsense girlfriend, Olive (Brooke Smith).
An unconventional program run by Dr. Beckham (Reeves) is a last attempt to try and help the young woman, orchestrated by Susan. Finally caving in when her half-sister asks her in the most sincerely straightforward manner to give it a go, Ellen finds herself in a home with six other young women and one guy, Lucas (“rhymes with mucus”) or Luke (Sharp), who all have eating disorders, too. They share rooms without doors, are weighed each morning and are expected to all come down for dinner, whether they want to eat or not. As the woman overseeing the house (Marietta Sirleaf) explains, all toilets are locked for 30 minutes after each meal.
Noxon, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to explore dark and complex issues while frequently leavening them with unexpected moments of humor, such as when Dr. Beckham organizes a family therapy session — with, besides Ellen’s half-sister, also her step-mom, mom and mom’s girlfriend present — and the doctor dryly remarks that this must be a “record number of moms” for a single family session. In that one short sequence, Noxon impressively manages to telegraph a lifetime of hurt and complex interfamily dynamics.
There’s another sequence much later in the film between Luke and Ellen that also impresses. After the obligatorily awkward meet-cute at the group house, the two strike up an unlikely friendship — or perhaps a sense of kinship is a better way of putting it. Luke then starts signaling he’s interested in Ellen through various food/sex metaphors that remarkable newcomer Sharp manages to sell with a lot of goofy charm and not an ounce of ick, essentially setting him up as the potential male romantic lead.
In one well-observed and even, yes, heart-warming scene, the two go on a date to a Chinese restaurant, where Ellen keeps spitting out her food into her napkin but is otherwise having a good time, suggesting how the illness doesn't prevent her from the occasional happy moment, even though that doesn't mean that one such moment makes all her problems magically disappear. But the standout sequence is one in the home’s yard at night, where the two confess some intimate secrets to each other, get closer and are then pulled apart, with Collins’ performance and Noxon’s writing providing Ellen with such emotional transparency that it’s crystal clear how her feelings and thinking evolve and then escalate.
(Spoilers ahead in this paragraph.) The third act necessitates a point-of-no-return but a few more hints earlier on that this was coming would have made its arrival more credible. Similarly, the idea of a potential rebirth sees Noxon leave the almost documentary-like reality of the rest of the film behind for a moment, but this major tonal shift would’ve felt more organic and tethered to Ellen's whole journey if it had been more clearly foreshadowed. However, these are small issues in a work that manages to suggest so much about how eating disorders are not necessarily about food or body image and about how no ill person can be healed if they resist, for whatever reason, to be helped.
In terms of the visuals, Noxon and cinematographer Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) opt for a simple but elegant metaphorical solution, with much of the home, where Ellen struggles with her issues, filmed in dimly lit, heavily shadowed shots and moments of hope or grace often taking place outdoors or in brighter light. Elliot Greenberg’s editing makes the 107-minute running time feel surprisingly pacey, while the rest of the film’s technical credits are likewise solid for an indie production.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: AMBI, Sparkhorse, Mockingbird Pictures
Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato
Writer-director: Marti Noxon
Producers: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis, Karina Miller, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi
Executive producers: Talal Al Abbar, Matthew J. Malek, Anita Gou
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production designer: Maya Sigel
Costume designer: Maria Tortu
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Music: Fil Eisler
Casting: Rich Delia
Sales: WME / AMBI
Not rated, 107 minutes