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The Romance Conundrum in Recovery Films

If they have to include a love story, they need to get it right.
By  · Published on July 19th, 2017

If they have to include a love story, they need to get it right.

There are two new movies dealing with anorexia out on digital platforms this week, their proximity likely a coincidence on the part of their distributors. Marti Noxon’s To the Bone with Lily Collins premiered Friday on Netflix, while Feed, written by and starring actress Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars), hit VOD yesterday. There is much to say about their portrayals of eating disorders, but I want to look primarily at their treatment of romantic relationships, which is often a problem for this kind of film.

Trauma and recovery stories are tricky to translate to the screen, mainly because a one-story-fits-all approach simply does not work. Couple that with the media’s tendency to be morbidly curious and we’ve got an insensitive, glorified mess waiting to happen. Nothing else released this year has made that clearer than 13 Reasons Why, which despite being technically proficient and well-acted has come under fire for its graphic portrayal of suicide.

To the Bone has received a similar, if more pre-emptive, reaction with regards to how it potentially characterizes eating disorders. Its trailer caused an uproar online for portraying triggering material as a way to sell the movie. That same trailer was also called out for its lack of intersectionality, playing into the assumption that only middle-class white women get to have their struggles told on screen.

Whenever we see eating disorders portrayed in mainstream media, there is an undue focus on the physical. Impossible body image standards already exist in Hollywood, regardless of subject matter. But when eating disorders come into the picture, there tends to be a paradigm shift towards irresponsible quantification in order to personify illness.

A fine line exists between educational demonstration and stereotyping and further stigmatizing sufferers. By portraying eating disorders purely as their physical symptoms, there is gross neglect of how they affect mental health. Nevertheless, Noxon and Bellisario’s films, both of which are based on their own personal experiences, actually address the physical and mental aspects of illness, albeit to varying degrees.

Without a doubt, these are starkly different films, no less because they don’t really share a core narrative beyond the theme of eating disorders. To the Bone portrays recovery already in progress for its protagonist, Ellen (Collins, who has also been open about her own struggles with eating disorders), while Feed tracks the evolution of its main character, Liz (Bellisario), and her anorexia up to the eventual start of her recovery.

The films share themes of isolation, guilt, and shame. Ellen and Liv’s triggers also involve severe loss, for which they hold themselves responsible. Moreover, both characters have disruptive family lives that even devolve into abusive behavior. So these women are left to suffer in silence.

That’s where the requisite love interest comes in… I guess?

This fairly abrupt segue is intentional, because that’s how most of these subplots usually feel: shoehorned and unnecessary. Romance in itself isn’t actually needless in recovery films. I would argue that it’s important to include them, as long as their writers create love interests that don’t manipulate vulnerable characters further. Everyone is deserving of respectful love. The more films that perpetuate worthwhile, caring messages, the better.

But how should they strike a balance? With such a singular focus on one character’s recovery, everyone else tends to sit in the periphery. There will always be perspectival bias involved as these secondary characters struggle to understand the protagonist’s needs.

To the film’s credit, To the Bone combats criticisms by setting its primary series of events in a recovery house that includes representational patients. There happens to be an overweight patient, a pregnant adult, and a young man, among others. The character Lucas (Alex Sharp) has been receiving inpatient care for six months by the time Ellen moves in. His presence in the house already breaks down several stereotypes of persons battling eating disorders.

But he is also one of the film’s major downfalls because of his role as the requisite love interest. This attempt at a romantic subplot is dealt with in a rather heavy-handed way. There are many forced interactions between Lucas and Ellen. She has to be in constant contact with him as he just won’t get out of her face.

The film tries to establish Lucas as someone with an issue with attachment. After all, he changes “muses” every half an hour. But that doesn’t justify his behavior towards Ellen at all. Regardless of his own struggles, he comes across as controlling and manipulative. He fashions himself into a savior role for her, often jumping the gun and dragging her along on his journey of recovery. It is not only unnecessary but also dismissive of Ellen’s agency.

Lucas is a caricature of a love interest, at best. He might be positioned as sympathetic. He is, in fact, a categorically nice person (although judging from audience reactions, people tend to find him annoying). But letting the character occupy such an important role in Ellen’s recovery dilutes the progress she makes on her own.

In contrast, Feed is a much more sinister film, except when it comes to romance. It examines the mental horrors of perfectionism and how that consequently snowballs into a full-blown eating disorder for Liv. Bellisario’s writing characterizes this as scary and over the top. Somehow, the terror and the heightened drama work together to form an apt cautionary tale. Liv is resilient until it becomes her downfall.

But romance plays out more sympathetically and in fact helpfully in Feed than it does in To the Bone. Liv’s relationship with her boyfriend Julian (Ben Winchell) is the healthiest in the film. Although he isn’t on screen for most of the narrative, his concern for Liv’s well-being comes across as genuine.

Rather than portray Julian as Liv’s “savior,” Feed does a good job of establishing his support. Julian doesn’t use his lack of understanding of Liv’s illness against her. He treats her respectfully before realizing she’s ill. When we see them reunite after she seeks treatment, he provides unconditional comfort. In such a suffocating, horrifying film, this comes as a breath of fresh air without downplaying Liv’s own determination to get better.

That said, Julian isn’t always present in Feed, and Liv’s illness is exacerbated by toxic men who are constantly present in her life. It’s hard to see the film as an overall win when her one good relationship is mostly absent. Still, it succeeds where To the Bone fails with regards to their portrayals of love. Feed shows us that there are ways around clichéd, unhelpful, and toxic romantic relationships in recovery films.

However, across the board, Hollywood desperately needs to figure out a way to represent trauma and recovery in non-gratuitous ways. Frankness only goes so far when there is a lack of baseline sensitivity to balance it out. And as a general rule of thumb, if that “sensitivity” comes in the form of a savior complex masquerading as a love story, nobody wants it.

The industry obviously has a massive obsession with romance for any kind of film. So, it really has to do better and be consistent. It must advocate for the portrayal of safe relationships, especially when vulnerability is involved.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)