"SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON:"
- May 1, 2006
"Thin" is difficult to watch. Eating disorders are an uncomfortable subject under any circumstances, but Lauren Greenfield's film steps it up a notch by being exactly what we say we want documentaries to be - clearheaded, objective, and non-judgmental. That's a rough deal, since there will likely be a number of times during the film's running time when the audience will want to yell at the camerawoman to do SOMETHING, even if they're not sure what.
Greenfield sets her cameras up in the Renfrew Center, a residential clinic for women with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Mainly, we follow four women: 15-year-old Brittany, who learned her bad habits young; 25-year-old Shelly, who has been fed with a surgically implanted tube for the last two years but learned that it provides, as she puts it, "direct access to [her] stomach", making purging with a syringe much less unpleasant than the usual methods; 29-year-old Polly, who becomes Shelly's best friend at the clinic; and 30-year-old Alisa, a mother of two worried that she won't be able to see her kids grow up. We follow them through morning and evening weigh-ins, precisely monitored meals, group therapy, one-on-one psychological, medical, and nutritional examination. We see them receive visitors, and watch them break the facilities every rule.
That's the frightening thing. When we see three women smoking near a vent in the bathroom, we know it's not a good thing - nicotine messes with appetite, and the center has strict rules against it. So even as we're suitably impressed with the trust the subjects have in Greenfield and company (it probably helps that she appears to have an all-female crew), we can't help but wonder at the price at which that trust comes. It is an unpleasant experience to watch people destroying their health in ways that seem completely avoidable, while not only powerless to do anything to help, but aware that others are in the room.
But what can they do? This Renfrew Center is apparently one of the top clinics in the country, and everything they do seems to be totally reasonable. And yet, it doesn't seem to help. If insurance running out doesn't cut therapy short, then people are breaking rules, and when we finally get to the end, well, it's harrowing. Few patients are discharged because they appear to have their problems under control, and indeed, since we've spent the previous hour and a half learning symptoms and behaviors, the last act creates a lump in our stomachs that has nothing to do with food. We're not going to get a sense of triumph here: If this film is looking to convince us of anything, it's that these eating disorders are genuine mental illnesses which can, maybe, be controlled with constant attention, but that level of attention is asking a lot.
Once I got past the discomfort at what I was watching, I did find myself quite impressed with the filmmaking. As was confirmed for the festival audience learned afterward, the filmmakers obviously could not get clearance from all the patients in the clinic to be filmed, so they had to be very careful about camera placement and editing to avoid pixilating part of the image. As mentioned earlier, the filmmakers had to build a very close relationship with their subjects, which allows them to capture scenes showing the patients in an unfavorable light. One sequence, after the patients are discharged, stands out; the filmmakers have to know their subjects well enough to see it coming, and the woman in question has to allow the camerawoman in question (cinematographer Amanda Micheli) to shoot it because she believes that the audience needs to see it, even if it doesn't speak well about her.
It's a shame, because it's one of the subjects the audience was more inclined to view favorably. In addition to what we learn about eating disorders, the dynamics of watching young women in this sort of situation are interesting: It's a situation, with regulated movements, scheduled meals, and a daily schedule to be kept, that may remind some of a boarding school or college dorm, and the patients act like that. Cliques form and rumors spread; they gossip about each other and complain about their counselors.
This isn't a film for the meek; it's an actively film that actively seeks to make its audience uncomfortable from the first sight of a grown woman weighing in at eighty pounds. My only issue is how despairing the film sometimes seems. It's the type where one might normally say "if it helps even one person, it's worth it, but I fear it might reinforce the sense of hopelessness as much as it will inspire people to seek help.