Flavorpill Sundance

"Thin," Lisa Rosman - January 22, 2006

There are two kinds of draining films: those that pay off the misery of watching them, and those that don't. And last night, in an inadvertent double martini of despair, I experienced one of each: Destricted and Thin.

Destricted, the collection of shorts about porn by visual artists, is a classic example of a film that substitutes shock value for meaning — the ultimate adolescent equation. (Its only true value might be as a powerfully effective prophylactic.) But Thin, a documentary about four women in a locked ward of a Florida eating disorder clinic, is that rare film whose harrowing viewing experience is crucial to learning all it has to teach.

From the opening shots of 5:30am morning weigh-ins — the hospital's halls peopled with women and girls in hospital gowns, heads looming large above tiny, ravaged bodies shivering and shaking in blankets, cigarette burns and razor burns marring blue, furry skin — you know you're in trouble. First-time director Lauren Greenfield, a renowned photographer of teenaged girls, knows how to convey that terrible beauty that borders death, the sharp angles and mottled complexions and enormous, luminous eyes. She follows Shelley, a hollow-eyed 86-pound twin whose only sustenance for five years has come through a feeding tube implanted in her abdomen; Brittany, a 15-year-old girl who inherited her life-threatening bulimia and anorexia from her mother; Alyssa, a 30-year-old mother of two who proclaims she is willing to die if that's what it takes to be truly thin; and Polly, an outspoken bulimic anorectic who attempted suicide after consuming two slices of pizza.

 These girls are heartbreaking. They are liars who are honest that they are liars, at least up to a point. For the very nature of eating disorders is obfuscation. Hiding food, hiding purging, hiding whatever drives them to hate their bodies so much in the first place — and that much hiding requires a great deal of lying. So the degree of access and trust Greenfield establishes with them, and the facilities where they live, is quite extraordinary. Most likely, she achieves the greatest intimacy with these girls that they have ever known. We are present in individual and group therapy sessions, in staff conferences, in nutritionist and doctor appointments, and in lunch rooms where the girls cut their food into smaller and smaller pieces and often weep copiously after completing even a few bites of bread. Perhaps most harrowing of all, we are present when they relapse, even when they purge, a sight typically kept behind locked doors. And we are present when they bottom so low that even they glimpse for a few seconds just how limited and sick and ragged they've truly become. Heartbreaking.

 In the end, all four subjects leave the treatment center, and all four suffer serious relapses. Two are maintaining their weight; two seem worse than before. (Here at the festival, I've run into Polly, who says she is doing well although she still occasionally purges, and Shelley, whose continued struggles are all too visible.) But that's the nature of this particular beast; it never enjoys a simple happy ending. Unless she's on a feeding tube, an eating disordered person must actively make the choice every day to pursue the very substance that scares and repulses her most — a Herculean task for a person who cries when she eats a cupcake. Greenfield, bravely, does not shy from this reality.

 What's best about this film, easily the finest Sundance entry I've seen so far, is the contrast drawn between the girls and the world-at-large. Yes, these subjects are mentally ill, but through small, wry scenes with "healthy people" rather than through a barrage of statistics, we are reminded that the girls in the locked ward merely live at one end of the continuum of a nationwide disorder. Thin's tremendous, unblinking candor invites us to question what else lives hidden all around us.

 Keep an eye out for Flavorpill Sundance's forthcoming video interview with director Laura Greenfield and producer R.J. Cutler.

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 January 22, 2006, 12:38 PM