Sundance Film Festival always features a spattering of weepy offerings. And before seeing Marti Noxon's anorexia drama To The Bone, I assumed it would be nothing but wiping away tears and nose blowing. But I was happily surprised. Yes, the film is sad — any story about someone struggling with an illness surely has an element of melancholy — but it was also hilarious, and felt very, very real. Speaking with Noxon and stars Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, and Carrie Preston on a cozy couch at Sundance, I realized why this story felt so truthful: because it is.
Both Noxon and Collins have suffered from anorexia in the past, and the film, which sold for $8 million to Netflix, reflects parts of their real life struggle. "It's semi-autobiographical," Noxon says. "From the time that I was around 14 until I was about 24, I was both anorexic and bulimic, and in my case I got to where I almost died, I was 69 pounds at my worst."
Collins, 27, can relate. "I suffered from an eating disorder when I was a teenager. I wrote a book last year and I wrote a chapter on my experiences with [eating disorders], and a week later I got this script," she says. "I find it so strange; literally the universe is telling me: ‘this is something that you need to deal with again. You need to tell this story in a removed way. You need to do it with Marti.'"
And with that, the two collaborators got to work. Not only was this story truthful to their own experiences, they wanted it to be truthful to today's teenagers, and to anyone suffering from the illness. "I got to speak to the head of the UCLA Department of Eating Disorders. I got to go to an Anorexic Anonymous group and really immerse myself in it in a way that I had never taken the time to do when I was a teenager," Collins says.
But needless to say, stepping back into the shoes of her former illness "was nerve racking," Collins admits. "We were nerve-racked," Noxon adds.
"This is personally the first time I'm talking about it. It felt like something I needed to do in order to grow up from it. It took away the shame and regret of what I went through and made me just feel more free. I think that if someone says something that you can relate to, you don’t feel so alone. I hope that by telling this story it opens up conversations and gives a voice to people."
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa at least 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. The organization also claims that at least one person dies from the illness every 62 minutes. If these statistics are true, there is certainly an audience who could benefit from seeing Noxon's creation. That being said, it's important that art surrounding mental illness, like anorexia, does not glorify the disorder in any way. Thankfully, Noxon took care to ensure she never made anorexia seem cool or fashionable.
"We didn't show the body too much. We didn't fetishize it or include what her size was. Initially, we did have a number, but then we realized from my own experience and [Lily’s] too, that it actually sets a competition and someone who is suffering might think, ‘Oh, if she’s that, I want to be that.’ So we took all the numbers out," she says.
More than just a story about anorexia To the Bone is a story for women, about women, and by women. "I don’t think there are enough films that address women’s issues. And we’re not talking about just people with clinical eating disorders… almost every woman I know spends an enormous amount of her mental energy thinking about the way she looks," Noxon says.
To stress this point, the 52-year-old creative had an idea: "One time I asked people in the room, ‘how many years of your life do you think you’ve spent thinking about your appearance or struggling with your body size?’ And people said 'years.' Think about what we could do with that energy if we found a place where we didn’t criticize ourselves so much. It’s remarkable how many people tell me that they’ve gone through a period where they feel distressed about their size. Enough." she says. "Enough."
And enough is right. With so many women, men, girls, and boys struggling with eating disorders every year, anything to further the conversation is a noble effort not wasted. And To the Bone, both poignant and funny, relatable and heartwarming, might be one such piece of art to push the needle in the right direction.