Warning: spoilers and potentially triggering content for those suffering with eating disorders.
It’s taken me nearly three weeks to summon the courage to sit down and watch this film. As a former sufferer of Anorexia Nervosa – one of the family of eating disorders that you may recover from, but which never go away – exposure to any material related to restrictive behaviours is usually a surefire trigger. It conjures up memories of sleepless nights binge-watching as many ED documentaries as I could get my hands on in the throes of a relapse, idly stroking my gaping collar bones; proudly exhausted.
However, being fresh out of a relapse around a month ago and in – what I like to think – is a reasonably good place, I thought I’d give it a try. Having read that Lily Collins had suffered from Anorexia Nervosa herself throughout her teens, I marvelled at the strength she must’ve channelled to the lose weight for such a triggering role, without relapsing herself.
The film itself serves to breathe a little life into what is often portrayed and experienced as a pretty lifeless existence, without stirring any prickling sense of glamourisation. It goes beyond the wild-child, untouchable halcyon-days depiction we saw through the likes of Channel 4 Skin’s Cassie Ainsworth; instead opting for a more realistic and well-rounded insight into the characteristically insular lives of those suffering with Anorexia.
Lily’s character – Ellen, or Eli as the film progresses – has been led through a series of in-patient programmes to fruitless ends, leading her step-mother to suggest the unorthodox approach of Dr. Beckham’s (Keanu Reeves) treatment centre. The general gist of the treatment is a reintroduction to the more positive experiences that life has to offer, through a series of sometimes cringe-inducing outings and tasks.
When watching some of the scenes, it can strike as a tad uncomfortably off-the-wall, as we see the world through the eyes of a starving girl’s loose grip on reality. At first, the more hyperreal moments were off-putting and bordered on cheesy, but afterwards I recalled a number of moments during my illness where sheer lack of food would lead to the dissolution of the real world, leading to me wondering whether the kookiness was an intentional art direction or not.
An element of comic relief comes into play with the introduction of the protagonist’s larger than life love interest – a fellow patient on the programme – Luke (Alex Sharp). Luke is a former dancer who suffers from Anorexia and has recently sustained a knee injury, halting his performing whilst subsequently leading to a relapse.
The character lends a well-needed element of humour to the film: from wacky, to naively inappropriate, to refreshingly dark. You root for Luke throughout, hoping he gets the girl, whilst simultaneously tensing up with second-hand embarrassment from his brazen one-liners. Without this character, the film would struggle to lift itself from the drudgery of its central theme.
However, Luke’s character and his eventual influence on Eli’s illness brings up a quietly problematic trope. As the characters become closer and it becomes apparent that there’s a mutual interest, Eli becomes more receptive to getting better. She eats a chocolate bar Luke buys for her and, in the midst of a mental turning point of a fever dream, he is the main spectacle. The film ends with her returning to the in-patient facility and thus, returning to him; implying that she is opening up to help in the light that they will be together.
This strikes as a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’ ending, where the vastly complicated causes behind her illness are cast aside and immediately replaced by this new-found lust for life inspired by a boy. Her family issues are barely resolved and there’s little touching on the guilt Eli harbours after a girl killed herself due to her ED-themed artwork on Tumblr. It would be damaging for an eating disorder sufferer to finish the film with the take-away that all their problems can be fixed by a boy. Perhaps we can hope for a sequel where these are resolved?
This reductionist slant felt almost as demeaning as simply saying “eat” to somebody suffering with an eating disorder. It also begins to feed into the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope, when we consider that the last interaction the pair have before Eli runs away is Luke begging her to stay because – after discovering he can no longer dance – he needs her as she’s all he has left. Bit intense after 4 weeks of dating if you ask me, mate.
On the whole, the film was a carefully-crafted representation of a very difficult illness to portray, without dulling itself at the edges for the sake of playing it safe. Presenting well-rounded characters and a consistent lilt of humour throughout, it’s well worth a watch for anyone who would like to understand more about this ruthless mental illness. 7.75/10 (’cause Keanu Reeves was shite).
If you found yourself affected by anything explored within the film, Beat was a great source of insight and help when I was in the darker days of my eating disorder.