It should come as little surprise to long-time fans of Marti Noxon — the writer and producer behind such beloved television series as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “UnREAL” — that her feature directorial debut is snappy and smart and with plenty of loving attention paid to its female lead. Noxon has, after all, always excelled in these arenas, but that her “To the Bone” manages to fit all those nifty Noxon-isms into a dramatic, deeply personal storyline is only further proof of her talent behind the camera.
Loosely based on her own experiences with eating disorders, Noxon’s film follows young anorexic Ellen (Lily Collins) on a bumpy road to wellness that has tremendous stakes: if she doesn’t get “better” (and “better” in this space is very much a relative term), she’s going to die. When we first meet Ellen, she’s skating through yet another turn at a live-in facility, and it’s clear from both her sunken body and bad attitude that it’s not working. Again. “There’s no point in blaming anybody. Live with it,” Ellen says during a group therapy session, before holding up an arts-and-crafts sign that declares, “Suck my skinny balls.” A feel-good Lifetime movie this is not, and the material is all the better for it.
While Ellen’s home life is thorny — kicked out of her latest facility, she returns home to her anxious and well-meaning stepmother (Carrie Preston) and her charming kid sister (Liana Liberato), her dad nowhere in sight — and the film eventually reveals a complicated family history that at least partially explains why Ellen, sick or not, never quite feels as if she belongs anywhere.
Eventually placed under the care of the supposedly radical Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), “To the Bone” momentarily seems ready to tip into miracle-cure territory, but Noxon holds tight. Beckham may be off-beat to some — mostly, he’s just interested in listening to Ellen, which may actually be the radical therapy she needs — but the introduction of his methods into Ellen’s delicate life don’t immediately result in some magic healing. (Noxon’s script is equally shrewd and subversive once it introduces Ellen’s romantic foil, again avoiding easy outs or fairy tale conclusions.)
For a while, things even get worse for Ellen, as she’s forced into an intimate residential facility populated by doctors, patients, and experts who make it their business to not let her off the hook. Ellen’s many tricks — she’s aces at calorie counting and relentless when it comes to covert exercise — are eventually stripped from her, and she’s forced to reckon with the possibility that not only does she have to get better, but that doing so will require a complete overhaul of her entire life, not just her physical being.
“To the Bone” neatly unspools a slew of compelling details about Ellen, from further insight into her family to a subplot that, in other hands, could have seemed needlessly overwrought. It’s well into the film’s second act when we learn that her condition was recently exacerbated by a bizarre tragedy that she still feels guilty about, leading to not just more emotional pain, but the loss of a key creative outlet. With each additional bit of narrative information, Noxon’s film remains grounded, keeping its focus on Ellen while expanding the world around her in realistic and credible ways. And still, “To the Bone” finds the lightness in its material, the absurdity of real life mixed in with very real stakes.
Like Noxon, Collins has been open and honest about her own experiences with disordered eating, and she channels that personal link into her finest performance yet, a rich and nuanced portrayal of a troubled young woman that effortlessly moves between light and dark. At Sundance, the pair were adamant that the film benefitted from intense collaboration, and Noxon has revealed that expanding the scope of the film beyond just her own experiences resulted in a richer narrative, one that was still steeped in truth. Ellen’s struggles are both epic (is she going to die?) and small (will she take a bite out of that tempting Goo Goo Cluster?), and Collins makes every moment feel as sharp and essential as the last one.
Collins’ performance is certainly the main attraction here, but Noxon has rounded out the rest of her cast with equally as impressive supporting turns from performers as diverse as Reeves, Retta, Alex Sharp, Preston, and Lili Taylor. As Ellen’s younger half-sister Kelly, Liberato does profoundly moving work in what could be an easily overshadowed role, bringing her own particular pain to the part, often enough to stir the insular Ellen into greater realizations. (During one of the film’s best scenes, a family therapy session that’s ill-fated from the start, Liberato steals the show with her achingly real reactions, finally giving voice to Kelly’s own struggles, so many of which have simply simmered.)
Throughout the film, Noxon refuses to offer up easy answers and feel-good conclusions to Ellen’s journey, even when it ratchets up into a literally overheated final discovery. “I’m going to be okay,” Ellen vows late in the film to no one in particular, to everyone, imploring us to believe her for once. After a journey as good and satisfying as “To the Bone,” we can only hope it’s true, as happy enough ending for a story that recognizes that “enough” is sometimes all it takes.
“To the Bone” will premiere on Netflix on Friday, July 14.