A first watch of Feed's trailer may have you assume that Troian Bellisario's film is a straight-up horror movie. In many ways, it is. But what makes the movie so scary isn't a ghost, or a killer clown. Rather, it's the realistic way it portrays the struggle of overcoming an eating disorder that should stick with its audience. As someone who struggled with eating disorders in the past, it was scary how realistic FEED personified the voice of an ED — and the very real way in which the film showed that it doesn't just disappear the moment one chooses recovery.
The story begins with twins Olivia (Troian Bellisario) and Matt (Tom Felton), who are as close as they are different. Olivia strives for excellence, something that her father (James Remar) seems to expect of her on her more than her fraternity-destined brother. Yet, despite the fact that Matt seemingly has it "easy," he's also the one who looks out for Liv. And while their relationship isn't perfect (perhaps Matt is a little too protective), it is one that Liv can count on. And then, after arguing with Liv about her decision to get drunk and hook up with their mutual friend Julian (Ben Winchell), Matt crashes the car they are in, and dies.
Olivia, unable to carry the guilt she feels alone, begins to see Matt — or some hostile version of him — in moments she might need him most. Matt tells her what to do, what to say, what to think — and, specifically, when not to eat. (Liv visualizes that she's saving the food for Matt, who can only live on if Liv makes this sacrifice.)
It's an eating disorder narrative we don't often see in pop culture: Never once does Olivia pick up a fashion magazine and trace her finger down an exposed spine of a too-thin model. Never once does she pinch her side and declare herself "too fat" to go to a party. While those things are certainly a reality of many people's eating disorders, for Olivia — and for producer and writer Bellisario, who based the story on her own experience with mental illness — not eating is synonymous with control. If she can control what she eats, and how much, she has something on lock — even when everything else seems to be slipping.
According to Bethany Kassar, MSW, LCSW and Executive Director of Outpatient Services at Summit Behavioral Health, control is a common element of many eating disorders.
"Typically, women who have the disease present themselves as being totally in control, though internally they are emotionally unstable and feel out of control. Those suffering from eating disorders overcompensate how out of control they feel by controlling their food intake, exercising, and purging (if they are bulimic)," Kasser explained. "Quite often, the underlying causes of anorexia are control issues. History of trauma and emotional turmoil motivate eating disorder patients to seek composure and control over their bodies."
Olivia is eventually forced into an inpatient treatment center — and forced to eat. But rehab is not some magic bullet. While in the center, Olivia continues to sabotage food, refuse meals, and, at one point, is forced to undergo nasogastric tube feeding. The thing that makes Olivia wake up is when she's told she will die — her heart will give out. It's inevitable.
It's a statement that Olivia is finally — finally — able to grasp. She turns to the personification of Matt and tells him that he's not her brother — he is a manifestation of her illness. When the time jumps to a month later, Olivia is, seemingly, on the road to recovery. Her doctor (David Warshofsky) tells her that she can have lunch out of the hospital, and she chooses to dine with her longtime crush, Julian.
Though she's able to go out to a diner with a friend, food is still not an easy thing for Olivia. She orders a mixed salad, something that clearly disappoints Julian, who sees the decision as evidence she is still struggling. Olivia insists that she just wants some mixed greens, as everything in the hospital is calculated for weight gain. Yet, when the food comes, we see that, maybe, that's not totally true — Liv stares at her food like it's going to kill her, then stares off at a jukebox, where Matt is standing.
"Are you okay?" Julian asks.
"I'm fine," she responds.
The ending to be pure horror movie — and also completely realistic. Despite what episodes of Full House and Lizzie McGuire might tell you, one doesn't recover from an eating disorder, or even begin to recover, after just one "a-ha" moment. Recovery is a process, not a destination — sometimes the voice of an eating disorder comes back louder than one would ever want it to, even when one is on a seemingly healthy path.
"A feeling of recovery is a unique journey that is different for all patients," Kasser said. "Depending on one’s age, and how long they have been suffering from an eating disorder can add to one’s sense of recovery or struggle. Recovery from an eating disorder is a day by day process. Unlike addictions to substances, eating disorder patients have to find a way to incorporate food into their lives in a healthy and balance manner."
Bellisario spoke out in an essay for Lenny Letter about how the voice of her illness didn't always quiet, but that she was able to find a way to tune it out, thanks to years of self-care and therapy. Recovery wasn't one choice: It was a series of choices, just as Olivia made the choice to eat a salad even with Matt standing menacingly over her shoulder. As someone who went through the recovery process, it was relatable. I could have one good day, and then have a bad one. Recovery was many choices, because food is something we have to confront everyday.
Without making too many comparisons (I found both films important in their own way), Marti Noxon's To The Bone features one of these "a-ha" moments — though the film ends before we can see how Eli's (Lily Collins) decision to get well plays out. Considering that Noxon wrote the film about her own experiences with an ED, I imagine that, had the movie continued on, we would see a similar string of successes and setbacks.
"In treatment, relapse is considered part of the overall recovery process," Kasser said. "Having some setbacks along the way is a part of gaining control and recovery."
As FEED presents, it's not a road to recovery, but a road of recovery. Seeing Matt in that diner may not have been the happiest of endings, but it is an honest one for many people struggling with eating disorders.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.
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