Please note: this post contains spoilers and discusses content that may be sensitive to certain individuals.
Over the past few years, Netflix has become a top contender in film and television production. This year, the company has forayed into creating works that are more provocative and controversial, with its series on teen suicide, 13 Reasons Why, and most recently its feature film, To The Bone, about a young woman battling an eating disorder. The film follows Ellen, a 20-year-old girl struggling with anorexia as she is placed in her fourth inpatient treatment home under the supervision of Dr. Beckham, a radical but effective specialist. After the extremely polarized reception of 13 Reasons Why, when I first heard about To the Bone, I immediately suspected it would also receive a great deal of mixed opinions, as it too opens a dialogue on a sensitive, underrepresented and extremely common issue. Many have criticized the work for "glamorizing" or "idealizing" anorexia, yet I found this observation to be off-base. While I did have some criticisms of the film (particularly regarding its potential to trigger impressionable individuals), overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the final outcome, as more than anything, it is a story that needs to be told. In similar fashion to 13 Reasons Why, To The Bone portrays an extremely unflinching depiction of a sensitive issue, so I was pleased Netflix made a point to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to warn viewers of the content.
Personally, I have known several people who have battled eating disorders to the degree they are depicted in this film, and as someone who has had my own challenges here, I was eager to see how these frequently unspoken issues would be presented. From Ellen’s stepmother’s tone deaf efforts to make her eat, to the sneaky tricks that each of the patients use to avoid recovery, in my opinion, the film felt very truthful. But perhaps the most truthful aspect of the film is its approach to the deadly nature of anorexia. To date, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, yet this is rarely discussed in the public space, when it absolutely needs to be.
In likely the most poignant scene of the film, Dr. Beckham takes the group to LACMA's infamous Rain Room. He asks, “Somebody tell me why we’re here!” to which the eternally optimistic patient, Lucas, replies, “Because we’re alive.” As the group wanders through the unbelievable piece of immersive art, embracing the world and its beauty, this scene feels like the positive turning point of the film. However, as any therapist would tell you, recovery can only happen once the person actively wants to get better. Despite this glimmer of hope, we are reminded of the grave truth about eating disorders as Ellen continues to spiral, becoming increasingly disinterested in life and rejecting of support. By the end of the film, Ellen reaches her rock bottom, in which she and her family both accept her imminent death as she continues to wither away. Like many people who struggle with anorexia, Ellen is forced to face death head on in order to accept treatment, but the seminal element here is that she does. And the fact that she does get a second chance to live, that many others do not, is a pivotal aspect of this film that makes it worth the watch. Unlike 13 Reasons Why (which does little to convince viewers that help is an option), To The Bone offers an uplifting ending that proves support is available and life is worth living.
Despite its criticism, I am a firm believer in opening the discussion on difficult and often taboo subject matter. These issues need to be destigmatized, and the first step is by providing a platform for discussion. We must continue the conversation.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, please don’t hesitate to get help.
Resources abound: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/resource-links