You will never look at Lily Collins the same way after seeing her “To the Bone.”
She plays an upper middle class art student tumbling towards death. She’s ballerina-with-cancer thin, Our first peek at the pretty “Mirror, Mirror” star are sure to make your jaw drop. She’s not ballerina thin, or cancer-starved. She’s a stick.
And even though this is acting, and she worked with a nutritionist to make this indie film on eating disorders, this is something she’s actually lived with in real life. It’s not so much a raw performance — the dainty, pale beauty of “Love, Rosie” is still recognizable, barely — as a committed one.
Every time her character declares, “I’ve got it under control,” we know better. The rare smile is parked on a pile of ribs, visible hip and sternum bones.
As Ellen, she provides a solid foundation to build a film that follows a conventional path towards an inconclusive resolution.
It’s a California tale, with an absentee dad, a carping step mother (Carrie Preston), a birth mother whose “coming out” and a sort of Internet art “fame” and its dark side, no one of which one and all toss out to “explain” her mania for starving herself.
Everybody is worried sick about her, even the sister (Liana Liberato) she impresses with her ability to accurately count the number of calories on every plate put in front of her, plates Ellen simply will not eat.
“It’s like you have caloric Asperger’s!”
But step-mom’s last throw-money-at-this hope is Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves). He’s the handsome near-beard with the foul-mouthed, kind-hearted tough-love that could save her.
“You’re not thin,” he says, sizing her up, examining the bruises for the sit-ups she insists on doing, despite not eating. “You scare people. You like that.”
Threshold it is, then, Dr. Beckham’s treatment halfway house for eating disorders. Producer-turned-writer/director Marti Noxon’s film takes pains to put an overweight girl (“I’ve got the BINGE part down,” not the purging.) and a British guy (Alex Sharp) in the mix. Because Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa still have that “rich white American girl/woman” stigma.
The sarcastic eye-roller Ellen doesn’t quite fit in, and the dorky, flirtatious ballet dancer Luke (Sharp, a Tony winner) pays her unwanted attention in such a disarming way that she lets down her guard.
“To the Bone” is filled with the gallows humor of cancer ward or mental ward dramedies, with one-liners and telling snippets of jargon that one might hear from a person whose illness has become their career.
“I’m about to get the tube and he doesn’t even care.”
“Typical of us Rexies!”
There’s one big laugh, a restaurant prank that’s part of Luke’s pretentious intent to hit the “can’t miss” eateries of his favorite food critic.
But I appreciated the filmmaker’s determination — Noxon is a “Buffy” vet — to take this seriously, even if she’s following a formula well-worn long before TV invented “Disease of the Week” movies.
We stopped making drinking and driving jokes, quite abruptly, over 25 years ago.
“Gay” jokes all but disappeared from polite public discourse somewhere between “The Hangover” (“That’s so…gay.”) and “The Hangover Part 3.”
Eating disorders? Acceptance and understanding have been a little slower coming. George Carlin’s furious assault on this mostly-American, overwhelmingly white and often affluent condition impacting (mostly) young women was 25 years ago, and there’s still a lingering “Just get over it” clinging to the culture.
“To the Bone” doesn’t quite bury that diatribe and its after-effects. But Noxon passes on some new theories about what is going on and what the latest treatments look like.
And Collins, an actress we’ve come to know via her roles over a period of years, so shocks us with just her appearance that it gives one pause. If that pause leads to a softening of attitudes and greater sympathy for those who are suffering, then “To the Bone” has achieved its higher calling.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, adult themes, profanity, smoking
Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Carrie Preston, Leslie Bibb
Credits: Written and directed by Marti Noxon. A Mockingbird/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:47