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Netflix’s To the Bone doesn’t glamorize eating disorders. It’s frank, funny, and unsparing.

Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves star in a movie about a 20-year-old battling anorexia.

Lily Collins stars in To the Bone
Lily Collins stars in To the Bone
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

To those who’ve had a brush (or worse) with the twisted, upside-down universe of eating disorders, To the Bone bears the unmistakable ring of truth, even in the midst of its humor and warmth. There are the obsessive patterns, the insistence that everything’s fine when it obviously isn’t. There are the furtive attempts to pass along “tricks” and contraband substances to help others with eating disorders slowly make themselves disappear.

And there’s the band of family and friends who, while trying to help and to assuage their own guilt, only make things worse. Even those who haven’t directly experienced anorexia will feel their hackles raise at these well-intentioned misfires.

But while To the Bone is knowing, it strenuously resists glamorizing anorexia and other eating disorders. The risk is always there still; for people in the grip of an eating disorder, especially young women, any depiction of disordered behavior — no matter how grotesque it appears to those who haven’t experienced such behavior — can be triggering.

Yet the internet is full of easily accessible communities devoted to “promoting” such behavior, painting it as part of a kind of tragic, sensitive beauty (and attracting not just people with actual eating disorders but also coteries of people playing with what they see as glamorous fire). To the Bone acknowledges that web trend as part of its smart and even funny story of a young woman nearing the bottom of her anorexia, and wraps it into the larger picture: that no eating disorder has simple causes or solutions, but for those who don’t recover, the end can only be death.

To the Bone tells a story that’s applicable to millions of people who have eating disorders

Far from making anorexia seem desirable, or acting as if it stems from a desire to “look skinny,” To the Bone is sensitive but unsparingly real. And that comes from personal experience: It’s the directorial film debut of Marti Noxon, best known for her long TV career as a writer and executive producer on shows including UnREAL and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and to write it she drew on her own battle with anorexia. (The film’s credits note that it is based on actual events.)

Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins in To the Bone
Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins in To the Bone.

It’s also personal for star Lily Collins, who has spoken about her own past with an eating disorder. Collins has also spoken about the care she took when stepping back into those shoes for the role, saying it turned out to be another kind of recovery for her, while Noxon says making the film involved exorcising some lingering demons of her own.

Some watching the film at home — after a warm reception at Sundance in January, it’s releasing straight to Netflix — may find it both unsettling and resonant. Eating disorders make very little sense to people who haven’t experienced them firsthand. And though eating disorders are a rampant issue in America — the estimates are as high as 30 million people, which is nearly 10 percent of the population, and those experiencing it are disproportionately female — they still fall outside the mainstream for cinema. (Eating disorders are fairly common fodder for TV movies, but Hollywood still dances around the subject.)

But Noxon and Collins intuitively understand why the story needs to be told, and they’re equipped to tell it well; anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder, or knows people who have, will instantly recognize that this is a film that knows what it’s talking about.

Collins stars as Ellen, a 20-year-old funny, sardonic, artistic young woman whose anorexia is hurling her toward rock bottom. Forced to see a new doctor by her chattering, nervous stepmother (Carrie Preston), she ends up in an inpatient situation totally unlike any other she’s been in before, a house of seven young people tended by a no-nonsense house manager (Retta). And her doctor (a terrific Keanu Reeves) has some unorthodox methods.

To the Bone is a great example of the sort of film that Hollywood is too timid to touch. It’s helmed by proven talent and features big stars — in addition to Collins, Preston, and Reeves, the film also stars Lili Taylor — but because the topic is perceived as “edgy” (especially, one might imagine, by the older white male executives who still typically greenlight projects at the big studios), it’s hard to get made.

But while To the Bone doesn’t take a lot of risks cinematically — Noxon’s background in TV shows in the film’s conventional framing and pacing — it’s moving film, well-made and, surprisingly enough given the subject, funny and sweet.

To the Bone doesn’t shy away from the grim physical consequences of eating disorders

It’s also a little hard to watch. The small knot of young people in the inpatient program Ellen enters manifest their disorders in different ways, from bingeing and obsessive exercise to hiding bags of purged food under the bed. An eating disorder is in essence the mind externalizing its brokenness through the body, which can mean different things in different bodies. But it’s all deeply physical — which means everything else bodies do (sweat, shiver, conceive, have sex) is affected.

Lily Collins in To the Bone
Lily Collins in To the Bone.

To the Bone doesn’t back off from the physical consequences of its characters’ disorders — not just the weight loss, but the other ways (some of them devastating) the body shuts down. It’s more evidence that there’s no glamorizing going on in this film.

And though Ellen is sick at the beginning of the film, she hasn’t miraculously recovered by the end. There’s no magic cure. Even hitting bottom doesn’t ensure she’ll recover. But what To the Bone is certain of is that without the conviction that she deserves to live, she’ll never get better. That conviction resounds with truth — and it’s vital even when an eating disorder isn’t in the picture.

To the Bone premieres exclusively on Netflix on July 14.

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