Movie Review – To The Bone

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EXPECTATIONS: An intense and even harrowing portrayal of its subject matter.

REVIEW: Films of such subject matter as To the Bone has (eg. terminal disease, AIDS etc.) particularly the ones that aim for teenagers, tend to be sappy (like My Sister’s Keeper), melodramatic and even deeply misguided, if done wrong. So whenever I hear about a film such as these, I tend to cringe. But in the case of To the Bone, I was quite intrigued.

First of all was the involvement of Marti Noxon. A talented screenwriter of both TV (due to contributions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and her recent contributions to films such as the upcoming dramatic film The Glass Castle and the video-game adaptation Tomb Raider. Not to mention that the subject matter is deeply personal to Noxon, as she went through the same experiences as the lead character.

And second of all was the involvement of Lily Collins. Ever since I saw her in Mirror Mirror (which I think is an underrated treat), I found her to be a lovely presence on screen and films like Rules Don’t Apply and Love, Rosie prove that. But she has never been truly tested with her acting potential and To the Bone seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. And once again, it helps that Collins also has a personal relation to said subject matter, having gone through similar experiences in her earlier life.

And finally, I myself have gone through a similar, although not as intense, experience. At a young age, I was severely underweight and would usually bribe my parents for playtime, rather than eat anything. It was so severe to the point where I would just throw school lunches my mother made just to go out and play. It was even suggested that I would have been forced to consume food intravenously.

Will To the Bone escape the genre trappings and become a worthy entry in the genre, or will it sink into the afterschool-special abyss, where it will repeat at 2:00 in the afternoon for eternity?

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Lily Collins stars as Ellen, an unruly 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the supposedly better part of her teenage years going through various recovery programs, only to find herself getting worse every time.

Determined to find a solution, her self-serving family (consisting of Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Liana Liberato and Brooke Smith) agrees to send her to a group home for youths, which is led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves, playing a doctor for the third time).

With the help of her similarly afflicted bunkmates (consisting of Alex Sharp, Ciara Bravo, Maya Ashet, Kathryn Prescott, Leslie Bibb and others), will she go on the path to recovery and achieve self-acceptance?

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Firstly, does the film deal with its issues effectively and does it execute it in a manner that is both illuminating, cinematic and thought-provoking? For the most part, yes. First of all, it is admirable that the film is not majorly about dealing with an eating disorder, but it is about finding the love and acceptance about one’s self and director Marti Noxon conveys that quite well.

There are no scenes where Ellen would magically eat or whether Ellen undergoes a complete change. It is all about the struggle before the triumph and Noxon executes it in a palatable fashion i.e. with no overuse of music, acting histrionics and most importantly, very little audience pandering.

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What Noxon does is that she leavens the film and its subject manner with a good use of surprising humour. Whether the humour is good-natured (“Lucas rhymes with mucus”, Alex Sharp jokes), dry (Keanu Reeves certainly contributes on that front) or even dark (“If you die, I will fucking kill you.”, Liana Liberato states), it lends a certain warmth to the film, as well as a sense of honesty that speaks on a personal level.

The same honesty even applies to the drama, particularly in the third act, where Ellen hits, according to Reeves’ character Dr. Beckham, “bottom”. Without spoilers, the moments in the third act, and how they culminate, are beautiful, scary, confusing, absurd; and it had me by surprise that Noxon stuck with her guns to portray those moments sincerely. Some of the images (whether physical or metaphorical) may provoke controversy, but again, it all feels personal and it has enough cinematic panache to come off as truly compelling.

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It helps immensely that the cast assembled for To the Bone give very good performances. Lily Collins finally gets a leading role where she can exercise her acting chops and she does really well, whether it is acting out the character’s cynical side, her gradual love of herself as well as others and of course, her vulnerable side.

As for the supporting cast, Keanu Reeves does dry in the way only he can do it (for clear evidence, see Thumbsucker) and he does well, providing some amusingly dry humour. Carrie Preston is convincingly paternal and verbose as Ellen’s stepmother and Lili Taylor is fantastic as the guilt-wracked mother of Ellen, and the scenes she shares with Collins, particularly in the third act, are very effective and affecting.

The young cast are all good in their roles, with Alex Sharp turning up the charm without the creepiness that male love interests on film usually have; Liana Liberato lending heart to the film with her sisterly reactions with Collins and Leslie Bibb, who is cast-against-type as a similarly afflicted pregnant woman, as highlights.

On the negative side, there are some moments where the humour and dramatic moments may irk some due to the fact that it is present in a film with such grim subject matters and the character archetypes do imply a certain vibe that this story could only happen on film, but there is enough truth and honesty in the film that it will have an emotional impact and it is a credit to Noxon and the cast that To the Bone works as well as it does, considering my reservations of the genre as well as my personal inclinations.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Collins

Honest, truthful direction by Noxon

Committed supporting cast

A strange yet effective sense of humour enlivens the proceedings

CONS

Cinematic tropes and some of its humour detract from the realistic issues

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Leslie Bibb
Director: Marti Noxon
Screenwriter: Marti Noxon

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