The Atlantic

To the Bone: The Trouble With Anorexia on Film

The new Netflix movie illustrates how hard it is to responsibly portray a mental-health disorder that has morbidly fascinated culture for centuries.
Source: Netflix

To the Bone, which arrives on Netflix Friday, is a mostly unremarkable film about anorexia, in that it follows the model of virtually all existing films about the subject. Ellen (Lily Collins), a young white woman from a privileged but dysfunctional family, is anorexic. In the narrative arc of the movie, she’s admitted to a treatment center, where a charismatic doctor (Keanu Reeves) essentially tells her to choose life. She gets better, and then worse. All this aside, there’s one notable difference between this particular movie and its manifold predecessors: It debuted at Sundance, not on Lifetime.

If nothing else, the movie’s platform is a hopeful sign for sincere treatments of anorexia, since features tackling the subject have historically been sidelined to  the schlocky genre of movies made for television. There’s The Best, a 1981 movie produced by Aaron Spelling that starred Jennifer Jason Leigh as a 17-year-old cheerleader and ballet dancer who develops an eating disorder. That movie was based on a book by the psychotherapist Steven Levenkron, who treated Karen Carpenter; after Carpenter’s death from anorexia in 1983, the film received a boost in the public eye. , a lightly fictionalized movie about Carpenter’s struggle with the illness, even aired on CBS in 1989.

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