Jul 18, 2007

Half nunnery, half junior high with a soupçon of penitentiary on the side

That's how I'd describe the facility depicted in Thin, a documentary currently running on HBO about patients at a treatment center for eating disorders.

The Renfrew Center is a strange place. The counselers, therapists and nutritionists mostly speak a patois that's part feel-good psychobabble and part drill sergeant. They're always going on about "the community" and they never raise their voices, but they're pretty ruthless about ejecting a patient when her insurance runs out. They emphasize openness and trust, but they run periodic room checks and punish malefactors who are found with contraband like cigarettes or gum. They encourage the patients to support one another, but when three of them form a particular attachment they throw out the girl with the strongest personality whom one staff member describes as "a bad seed."

Polly is the bad seed. To me, at least, she seemed the most interesting character. A southern girl with a raspy cigarette voice and an uninhibited Tallulah Bankhead-like vocabulary. She's the movie's version of the character Mary Clancy in The Trouble with Angels. Where Polly goes, trouble follows. She's often pictured standing on her bathroom sink, blowing smoke out of the vent, sometimes accompanied by another girl. She and another girl sneak into town and get tattoos, a move that leads to her expulsion after two girls are encouraged to tattle on her.

I say girls, but Polly is actually almost 30 at the time the film was made. She and the other patients look and act like children. The former condition is a result of their eating disorder--the only breasts and hips on display here belong to the staff. Whether the latter is also a function of their condition or of the hothouse atmosphere in the facility, I really can't say.

I also wonder whether the the expensive treatment works at all. As soon as Polly is told to leave she makes her way to the bathroom and induces vomiting. Up to that point she had been gaining weight and sticking with the program--mostly. One woman, Alisa, leaves the program when her insurance runs out, but moves to Florida to continue on as an outpatient. While living at the treatment center, we never see Alisa, a 30-year-old bulimic, acting out the way the other patients do. But on the night she leaves she goes out to dinner with another patient and all of a sudden things get weird. She orders a huge amount of food and proceeds to pick at it when it arrives, rubbing the dressing off each lettuce leaf before she puts it in her mouth. Later, at home with her children, she's tasting all kinds of snacks in the kitchen. Then she prepares for bed by drinking huge glasses of water and vomiting.

There are parts of Thin that can cause the viewer's stomach to churn. We see closeups of the girls' bodies when they get weighed and it's not pretty; one shot of a patient's back is particularly disturbing.

And then there are the strange eating rituals and behaviors.

One 15-year-old girl describes how she and her mother used to spit and chew together. They'd buy a ton of candy, chew it and spit it out. A real mother/daughter bonding moment. The mother comes to visit the girl and they have lunch together. The mother begins picking at the food on her plate, moving pieces to the side which she pronounces inedible. When offered a bite of a veggie burger, she refuses to bite into it because it has cheese on it and she's "already had her dairy for the day." Instead she reaches over and pulls out a tiny piece and gingerly puts it in her mouth, chewing it with a pucker of distaste as though it were poison.

Another girl who's had a feeding tube inserted into her stomach announces that she likes the tube because she can just suck food directly out of her stomach with a syringe. She also figures out a way to flex her abs in such a way as to squeeze food out.

Thin is a pretty compelling film. I'm not quite sold on the director's implied message that there's a problem with the insurance industry or the medical/industrial complex since even the patients who go all the way through the program are liable to return to their old behaviors as soon as they leave.

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