The first time Lily Collins strips, to the bone, in her new film To the Bone, it’s hardly titillating. On the contrary, it’s terrifying. Like all those other times actors have put their bodies through hell – Christian Bale in The Machinist, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Aamir Khan in Dangal, to name a few off the top of the head – the physical act of taking one’s clothes off is meant more as a powerful reveal than anything else, a short cut to get the audience on your side.
“Look at the lengths we’ve gone to,” the actors seem to say, their quietly alluring physical transformation hypnotising us into submission before the first act is over. The irrefutable truth that we see – no fat-suits, no CGI – adds another dimension to the performance. Suddenly, the character becomes a living, breathing being, and not a famous face in an elaborate costume and makeup.
In To the Bone, Lily Collins plays Ellen. When we first see her, she is being discharged from a treatment facility of some sort. Her gaunt face doesn’t betray her exact condition – it could conceivably be any number of things – but it is hinted, strongly, that this isn’t her first time around the block.
Her behaviour, and that of the people she interacts with – her step-mother and half-sister being her most immediate family – suggests her condition is at quite an advanced stage. She eats, but not really. She exercises compulsively. She can correctly guess the amount of calories in her food, an ability she likes to call ‘Calorie Asperger’s’. Her father refuses to meet her, her mother has run away with her lesbian lover, and she can’t remember the last time she had her period.
And then, she takes her clothes off.
Her bones stick out like the blades of a prehistoric reptile. Her stomach – or, at least the area where her stomach should be – seems to have had air sucked out of it with a vacuum. When she moves, you almost expect a clanging noise. Her skin is wrinkled, covered with fur – her body’s flailing attempt to generate heat. She is dying before our eyes.
As a last resort, her step-mother brings her to another facility, run by a doctor she’s heard good things about. He’s Dr William Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves, channelling Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. Dr Beckham sends Ellen to a home where others like her are being treated, and so begins our movie, a movie which has shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the more recent It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
Both these films – all three, in fact – address the traumas of mental illness with humour, and with heart. They isolate our central characters into a world where they are cloistered with others like them, away from judging, prying eyes. Watching them live their lives in this closed-off ecosystem is meant to change our perspective. Whether or not this ploy succeeds is another story.
Any rational person’s first reaction at seeing Ellen would probably be, “For the love of God, just eat!”. For us to understand why she isn’t getting better, when the cure seems so simple, we need to be shown what it is like to live her life, what it is like to look at the world from her point of view, to be seen as a pitiable, diseased trainwreck. Anorexia appears to be tangible, but it is as much a mental illness as it is a physical disorder. Not once does Ellen truly believe that she has a condition. Her mind has convinced her that she is eating too much, even when her body tells her otherwise. It is a constant battle, between her mental and physical sides.
There is no denying that To the Bone is a personal story, both for first-time feature writer-director Marti Noxon (who is a veteran in the world of TV), and star Lily Collins, who have struggled with eating disorders in their lives. But does it do justice to their stories, and to the stories of others who’ve suffered like them? There is no way of knowing.
But as a film, it is clear that there is something lacking. Perhaps it needs a more straightforward approach, with more drama and conflict, more music than awkward silences. As it stands, it hinges on the cast’s performances – which, thankfully, are stronger than some of the characters that they play.
But the insight a film like this requires – into the psychological downsides to being ostracised, the world’s idea of beauty, and the challenges of growing up different – is somewhat missing, despite a pitch-perfect Lily Collins. She’s vulnerable, yet strong – a terrific role model for others going through similar problems.
But how could we complain, now that we’re getting movies that have played at Sundance and Cannes in our homes?
Watch the trailer for To the Bone here: