Sunday, July 23, 2017

All The Realism We Can't Stand Cuts To The Bone

The Good: Good performances, Good direction, Good writing, Realism
The Bad: Tries to do too much/conceits of the genre
The Basics: To The Bone does what it sets out to do exceptionally well, though its ambition occasionally exceeds its grasp.

I learned a long time ago that mental illness is not a good point of bonding and works about it are not an easy genre to objectively evaluate. Learning truths about yourself are a great thing, but trying to relate to other people who might have similar experiences is frequently more perilous than one might anticipate - and "I heard you had a complete psychological breakdown after high school, too" is not a great ice breaker for someone you barely know who you haven't seen in twenty years. Works about mental illness resonate with different people in different ways and as a genre it is tough to discuss without pissing off people for whom that work resonates. So, the people who fell in love with Girl, Interrupted accept no criticism of the film as a work of art and I recall It's Kind Of A Funny Story (reviewed here!) speaking to me. Sitting down to watch the new Netflix film To The Bone was a known minefield for me.

As much as the creators of To The Bone want to reject the premise; it has become a sub-genre, the mental illness recovery drama. The works within that genre have some conceits - "I have a bad feeling about Suicidey!" - and once one is familiar with the genre, it is tough to make something that is both truly original and completely compelling. In the case of To The Bone, the longer the film went on, the more problematic it became; the film is ambitious and, unfortunately, its attempt at being inclusive and having a bigger scope drags the movie out of effectiveness and its initial universal insight. To be clear, as I discuss To The Bone, my critiques are of the film as its own work of art, not a commentary on the people who created it and might have drawn from their own experiences to make express their own personal narrative.

To The Bone is a film that focuses on a young woman, Ellen, who suffers from anorexia nervosa and the movie starts with a very engaging and compelling quality that comes from a strong, universal quality of the depiction of the character's disorder. But as To The Bone progresses, it moves further and further from the universal quality and loses focus on the film's tortured protagonist to give voice to other people suffering from eating disorders. That both leads to the introduction of the conceits - one of Ellen's peers at the in-patient home is pregnant and her arc is entirely predictable - and distracting elements. The underlying factors of Ellen's body dysmorphia are painfully obvious from the way she is introduced in To The Bone, but the process of delving into her issues is distracted by the realistic depiction of the faults of a group home situation and the issues of other characters there.

Ellen is released from her in-patient treatment for her eating disorder and returns home, where she experiences friction with her step-mother. Susan tries to keep on top of Ellen's condition and Ellen's half-sister continues to express fear about what might happen to Ellen. Susan gets Ellen an appointment with the very successful Dr. Beckham. Beckham gets Ellen to commit to several weeks of in-patient treatment. There, Ellen meets other patients, like Luke (a former dancer), Megan (who is pregnant), Pearl (who has a feeding tube initially), and her bulimic roommate. At the in-patient treatment, Ellen is given a new name by Dr. Beckham (Eli) and she struggles to overcome the problems that made her anorexic.

To The Bone is instantly problematic as a character study because Ellen gets marginalized in her own story. The way the film is set up, Ellen's underlying problem is made painfully obvious - she is neglected by both of her birth parents (her father never shows up on-screen) and she craves a sense of stability - but To The Bone fails to get around to addressing those core issues at all. Dr. Beckham is charming as a character, but his psychological prowess is deeply suspect - how wise is it to give someone suffering from body dysmorphia a new name?! And how can Beckham not recognize that Ellen requires a sense of stability that an in-patient treatment center with a rotating patient-base cannot provide? In other words, the charm factor of some of the ancillary characters distracts from the core themes and character traits of the protagonist. By the time Ellen ends up in an electricity-less yurt in the desert being bottle-fed by her lesbian mother, the film has lost any pretense of trying to express a universal story. (And to be clear, Ellen's mother's sexuality is not a problem in the film - who cares why Judy abandoned and later pushed away her daughter, she's a self-centered narcissist and well-characterized as a flake - the running away to the desert to the place so remote and hippy dippy that it doesn't even have electricity seems like a forced conceit.)

So, a group home setting where Ellen is surrounded by people cheating the system seems like the wrong therapeutic setting for the character (How is it that Susan could believe that the fifth time is a charm?!) and while To The Bone includes characters who are realistically gaming the system and suffering their own issues which confuse them, they make for a more jumbled narrative. Ellen has a compelling backstory that is slowly revealed in a compelling way, but writer-director Marti Noxon does not seem to know how to make that compelling and retain focus on that or Ellen. As a result, To The Bone takes a shotgun approach to the characters and includes the pregnancy conceit and a whole field trip for the residents that serves Alex much more than any other character. Alex's presence in the narrative is useful in that it is good to remind viewers that men can suffer from eating disorders as well, but To The Bone pulls toward his story whenever Ellen's story is drifting.

The net result is that for a film that begins with a stark sense of realism and unsettling focus, To The Bone diverges and waters down its own intensity and character drama. Ellen is an angry, isolated young woman who is suffering and the process by which she either hits bottom or moves toward recovery could have been compelling. Instead, To The Bone treads toward predictable, logical and distracting divergences.

That said, the performances are quite good in the film. Carrie Preston steals her scenes in To The Bone. Preston seems to get cast frequently as a somewhat out-of-touch hick, a well-meaning woman who is nevertheless the product of a very conservative upbringing (I'm not sure if Preston chooses those type roles or after True Blood she just got pigeonholed into them); her stepmother character in To The Bone seems similar. But in To The Bone, Preston plays a character who clearly loves her step-daughter and wants desperately to do right by her. Susan is written to be like a mother who has done all the research she can on her daughter's disorder, tries hard and occasionally overcompensates and Preston plays the aspects needed to make such a character pop.

Alana Ulbach similarly shines for her brief performance that is uncharacteristically neither manic nor sarcastic. Keanu Reeves is fine as the poorly-written Dr. Beckham. Lily Collins is good as Ellen - she carries the beginning and last five minutes of the film and there are moments in To The Bone where she is able to emote wonderfully with the simple changing of her eyeline or a slouch that manages to instantly characterize disappointment and fear. The rest of the performers might be fine, but they are granted such thin characterization to play that they appear more as a "type" than an actual character (sadly, To The Bone is woefully out-of-balance with both distracting from the protagonist and then not developing many of the characters used to divert from the main character).

Ultimately, To The Bone tells an initially important story and perspective that explores a tragic disorder, but it becomes unable to sustain or develop one character's narrative in a compelling and effective way.

For other Netflix exclusive films, please check out my reviews of:
You Get Me
Shimmer Lake
War Machine
Girlfriend's Day
Take The 10
True Memoirs Of An International Assassin
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
Special Correspondents
The Fundamentals Of Caring
The Ridiculous 6


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment