I Watched 'To The Bone' So You Don't Have To

And I didn’t want to watch it.
07/16/2017 08:35 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2017

Watching the movie "To The Bone" was like waking up on your birthday to a gift you already knew about but everyone is waiting to see your reaction. It’s the color people think you like, but you don’t. It’s meant to be a nice gesture, so you don’t want to seem ungrateful. You’d like to send it back unopened for a replacement, but that store is now closed.

So I opened it yesterday. And here’s my reaction, with no trigger alerts and plenty of spoilers.

Meh.

It’s just not a good movie. I love movies and I’m sorry, but the story doesn’t work, the characterizations are forced and flat, and there is no real theme or message. I didn’t end up caring about the characters, and so in the end when we don’t know what happens to them I wasn’t disappointed. The plot is confused and having not decided on drama or comedy it does neither. Keanu Reeves is a grumpy walk on. And the topic that brought me to have to watch it was covered so clumsily and generically it felt like a second string remake of a teen movie we fell asleep on the first time.

I was afraid to open this little present to the eating disorders advocacy world because I worried that it would:

  • pathologize parents (it does)
  • romanticize weight loss (it does)
  • fail to show eating disorders as a mental illness (it failed)
  • offer magical treatment (yep)
  • re-heat old myths about motivation and hitting bottom (check, and check)
  • force my fellow advocates to defend the crumbs we are given rather than demand the whole pie (sigh: yes)

So good news, my friends! It’s not good enough of a film to do much damage. This will not, I don’t think, become a classic beyond thinspiration and pro-ana blogs. It’s dull, and the imagery is more junior high emo than True Blood horror. It’s also not funny. And did I mention Keanu is really, really grumpy?

The emaciated imagery that the film promises, and the public loves, is no more shocking than the cartoon at the top of every article about anorexia, and the calorie counting and body checking is like watching an infomercial for diet drinks. If anyone learns anything new about eating disorders from this film they probably don’t know anyone with an eating disorder, and those are the people that many advocates are worried will watch the film.

My fear was that treatment would be shown in a dramatic and compelling way that would lead families to seek out or be trusting of the many snake oil salesmen out there. No worries: there’s no treatment in this film. There’s a bunch of folks living together pretty much unsupervised and unsupported in a house where they eat as they please and do no purposeful therapy — though they do once go on a field trip to a splash pad. No one looking for this treatment will find it, thank goodness. Real treatment is hard, involves skilled clinicians and families and staff, and fills the day with actual and challenging work. It also involves food.

I do have to warn you, though, that Grumpy Keanu visits patients in their rooms at night when everyone else is away. That part’s creepy, not grumpy, but never mind: if that happened in real mental health treatment the movie written about it would be another thing entirely.

I was also worried that a pull at the ribbons of this particular package would open a Pandora’s box of facile solutions. I’m looking at it and this bomb has been disarmed. It has some dangerous sparklers, like the heartbreaking reference to “Renfrew and Maudsley,” two words not often heard together and only meaningful to those of us who know that that R&M is not the brand name of a risky experimental drug. I was bracing myself for toxic parents but these were the Central Casting bumbling parents of most teen movies, not Joan Crawford.

The best gift of this movie is the sister, hands down. Tender, funny, and these are the only genuine scenes. Siblings will understand and cheer for her. She gets it. I want so much to pull her aside and give her the information that clearly no one has shared with her or the parents: that her big sis has a treatable brain disorder and isn’t making a choice. That real treatment can work, and her loving sister energy has a role to play in that full recovery.

But there are no recoveries or recovered people in this movie. No one is abused, mistreated, or dies, but no one gets well or does any of the actual work of recovery from an eating disorder, unless you call having visions in the desert therapeutic. Insurance may not pay for that, but there’s no waiting list.

But really, this kind of thing isn’t a gift, is it? It’s not meant to be advocacy, it’s a person’s story. In this case it is a story based on experiences decades ago, and lacking the insights and update that a story of modern treatment would yield. I understand they used a body double (who needs medical attention, by the way) for some of the scenes of emaciation, but I also note that no real facts were used or put at risk for this movie so Facts Rights Activists: stand down. We advocates are so excited to get any gifts at all in the form of media attention. We are all under pressure to promote the film or just talk about it, which is also good publicity. But it isn’t Hollywood’s job to do mental health advocacy or get the facts right. It would be great, of course, but Hollywood needs to count tickets, not outcomes.

Saving lives is the job of families, treatment providers, insurance and healthcare systems, policy-makers and researchers. But we don’t make the movies. If we did, maybe we could put a bunch of filmmakers in a house together and watch them eat and weigh them and ask them about their day. We could take away their phones and bring them on a field trip to a real treatment clinic and shower them with statistics and evidence. We could question their insight and motivation and make sure they “hit bottom” before we tell them to “suck it up” and get it right.

But no, that would be wrong. As Grumpy Keanu tells us: “It’s never that simple.”

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