THE ENDING WAS TOUGH TO SWALLOW
To The Bone
Review by Paul Preston
To The Bone has all the characteristics of its two main players – Sundance and Netflix. It’s a personal drama with quirky characters, a low budget and a mix of star power (Keanu Reeves) with indie cred (Lili Taylor and Brooke Smith), which is perfect for Sundance, where it premiered. Netflix went on a buying spree at Park City where they picked up To The Bone to brand their own and it’s a good fit for them – not overly-cinematic like Dunkirk or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it works on the small screen with scenes that play out like viewers are used to seeing from TV drama, plus a relatively inexpensive purchase ($8 million) for global rights to a new Keanu Reeves movie. So, there’s charm and accessibility, but is it any good?
Truth is, this is a Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) movie. Reeves plays sideman to Collins’ main character of Ellen, entering another treatment program for anorexia. Her frustrated stepmother (Carrie Preston) hopes the unique program of Dr. Beckham (Reeves) will finally be the breakthrough Ellen needs to right her physical condition. Dr. Beckham’s plan? Well…it’s not entirely profound or even well laid-out. Ellen checks into a house with six or so other housemates and there are rules of behavior that include dinner together and weekly meetings. He says unconventional things like “fuck off” and takes the housemates on field trips to LACMA. Dr. Beckham requires you commit to his protocol, but it certainly doesn’t seem like you’re signing up for anything too rigorous if you do.
Ellen’s housemates include a mousy girl with a feeding tube, another girl who’s been hiding her barf bags and a pregnant “rexie”, which has to be problematic. Mucking up the story is a boy named Luke (Alex Sharp) who is a dancer nursing a leg injury. All the housemates sound authentic sharing stories of how they vomit and whether or not Emma Stone is fat, but from the first scene where Luke shows up, he comes across more like how a movie might think I’d want someone to act if they were going to be eccentric in a film like this. As you can imagine, with that description, I found him least authentic, and a romantic storyline is thrown in with he and Emma that feels forced, as if someone thought she needed a boyfriend to help cure her anorexia. Ellen knows she doesn’t need that, we, as viewers, know she doesn’t need that, so we’re really just treading water through their scenes.
A much more effective storyline involves two aspects of Ellen’s past. She once had a Tumblr page with an extreme fan that didn’t go well, and in one therapy session we get to meet Ellen’s mother, who has come out of the closet and now lives in Phoenix with her partner. Lili Taylor plays Ellen’s mom and the two have a great scene towards the end of the film that involves a baby bottle that if I were in it, the scene would be wildly awkward. In the hands of Taylor, Collins and director Marti Noxon, that scene of a desperate mother trying anything to break through to her daughter was impactful.
Throughout, To The Bone wisely makes common use of a good sense of humor. Ellen is funny, the “rexies” rarely wallow in self-pity, they engage each other and laugh and Preston’s distress often gets a laugh, too. This allows for the poignant moments to have more of an effect. Lily Collins is very good in the lead role, there’s depth and a kind of helplessness that she struggles to cover with either silence or attitude. Either way, Ellen is always choosing an armor of some kind to keep people at a distance. Reeves is buy-able as the doctor, though not particularly soulful, but Liana Liberato has the best performance in the least talked about role as Ellen’s half-sister.
About three quarters of the way through the movie I thought to myself, “This is a pretty traditional movie. No trickery, just straight drama.” And I appreciated that. But literally just when I finished thinking that, a dream sequence was pulled out to help sort out Ellen’s feelings and bring her to conclusions about her situation. This was disappointing, and the worst part was that it achieved none of the effect the interpersonal relationships were already having up to that point in the movie. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but this shift in style and tone broke the movie for me and left me with a less-than-satisfied feeling at the end.
So, I liked about half of To The Bone. I attended and cast and crew screening, and although I was less than thrilled with the ending, there was better closure at the after party where I saw many of the cast members eating. That made me feel better.
Directed by: Marti Noxon
Release Date: July 14, 2017
Run Time: 107 Minutes