“Just eat,” 20-year-old Ellen (Eli) is repeatedly told through the course of the film that begins with a forewarning: “The film was created by and with individuals who have struggled with eating disorders, and it includes realistic depictions that may be challenging for some viewers.”
But, Ellen can’t eat. Not because she is immune to hunger, but because she is dealing with anorexia nervosa — an eating disorder that makes people obsess about weight, the calories they consume and weight loss. Afflicted people tend to exercise compulsively and purge via induced-vomiting and laxatives.
Ellen’s a part of a dysfunctional family of five — an absentee father, a step-mother, a half sister who is most sympathetic to her situation, and a biological mother who lives in another state with her lesbian partner. She is tossed around unwillingly from one parent to another, the people around her not ready to deal with her health condition. Ellen spends most part of her life in various in-patient programmes losing weight progressively, until her stepmom learns about specialist William Beckham (Keanu Reeves). Beckham agrees to treat her unconventionally, and thus begins Ellen’s journey of self-discovery, healing, love and dealing with the demons of her past.
To the Bone — a 2017 American drama film — has its heart in the right place. It maps out the personal journeys of its characters with a dash of humour, and with all the sensibilities required of a film addressing a medical condition.
For the uninitiated, anorexia nervosa is a life threatening medical condition that cannot be treated in isolation, or by force-feeding. It requires a team of professionals — nutritionists, therapists, support groups — and food and medicines to treat a patient.
In the film, Ellen (played by Lily Collins) asks a fellow in-patient and support group member how he manages to eat, when just the mere thought of bringing food to the lips makes her shudder — like the world will end right there. For those who’d know nothing about the disorder, watching Ellen go through her lows might seem perplexing. After all, how difficult must it be to eat?
But, it is incredibly daunting for a patient and suggestions like, “stop counting calories and just eat” don’t help.
Ellen has a bruised spine from rigorous exercises. She cannot recall her last menstrual cycle, her body has started burning out. Very soon, she will be force-fed via a tube because the thought of biting into and chewing her food, makes her feverish. She stresses about her weight, if she has gained any, and checks intermittently if her sickly arms can fit between her thumb and index finger.
The film does not offer a solution, as is evident by an open-ended climax. And it has been beautifully described by Reeves’ William Beckham, “Stop waiting for life to be easy, and stop waiting for somebody to save you. You don’t need another person lying to you”.
In one of the film’s most tender moments, Ellen bonds with her estranged biological mother whom she missed growing up, followed by a reunion-of-sorts with her stepmom who has been trying to understand her and her situation.
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia are taboo topics that the world at large still grapples to understand. But, the film offers an insight into the world of people trapped in their own heads, plagued with an eating disorder, trying to do better and failing. It intends to start a dialogue, and we can only hope it has managed to.