To Say Lifetime Movie Starving In Suburbia Was Intense Would Be An Understatement

Lifetime movie Starving in Suburbia April 2014

Last night’s Lifetime movie Starving in Suburbia examined eating disorders. Because this is Lifetime, though, just looking at eating disorders wouldn’t cut it, so the movie also looked at the dangers of the Internet as it relates to eating disorders. And they also got an alliterative suburbia-related title in there, to make sure they have something to show on marathon days right after Sexting in Suburbia, although this one had a much more intense tone. That’s putting it rather lightly.

I don’t have any personal experience with eating disorders, so I won’t presume to know the perfect way to depict it onscreen. And on the one hand I know it wouldn’t do the issue justice to make it look like sunshine and rainbows. But something tells me making it look like a deleted scene from The Ring is a liiittle much. Then of course there was the far-fetched twist and the heavy-handed metaphors, which didn’t really help. Sometimes it was like a horror movie, other times it was like a page from a 9th grader’s poetry notebook brought to life. Is there no happy medium? Haha, what am I saying? Happy mediums don’t exist for Lifetime.

The movie focuses on a teenage dancer named Hannah (Laura Wiggins, the nerdy girl from The Cheating Pact, one of my favorites). I spent a good part of the movie thinking her name was Anna, which would be very ridiculous because, as the movie tells us, some followers of eating disorder forums refer to anorexia as “Ana.” Putting the H in front of it doesn’t make it that much less obvious, but I’ll give some credit.

Hannah’s best friend Kayden (Hey Emma Dumont from Bunheads, why aren’t you spending your time getting Bunheads back on the air, eh?) introduces her to thinspiration sites. That gives Hannah, who’s already insecure about her body, some ideas, so she joins one of the sites and begins chatting. The girl who runs the site, known as ButterflyAna, takes Hannah under her wing (Get it? Because butterfly? You get it.) and encourages her to use unhealthy methods to lose weight. But just reading their online conversations would be boring, so the movie makes sure to put Hannah into a literal chatroom where Ana (Izabella Miko) whispers bad things into her ear while the wide-angle lens gives me a headache.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s got plenty of stressors around her that make her even more desperate to control her diet. Her dance teacher is giving her the Black Swan treatment, aka she says she’s too much of a perfectionist and should loosen up. We all know that advice never ends well. Her father (who looks just like Paul Giamatti not out of coincidence but because he’s actually his brother Marcus Giamatti) is also influencing her. He’s a wrestling coach who’s pressuring her brother (Brendan Meyer) to get into a certain weight class and controlling what and when he eats.

Things get worse and worse for Hannah and her eating disorder, and in turn the movie’s style gets creepier and creepier. The film was already so gray it might as well have been black and white. Then there are some unsettling upside-down shots and hallucinations thrown in. Hannah sees a butterfly at one point after she’s binged a bunch of pastries and thrown up on the side of the road. Her mother (Callie Thorne) also realizes what she’s up to because for some reason Hannah always has her laptop open to the thinspiration site. Why do characters in movies never close their laptops? Is that a thing real people do? Am I a total square for keeping mine closed when I’m not on it? Please advise.

Things get really extreme when Hannah’s mom discovers that she’s been hiding food away in her closet and it’s attracting moths. The discovery is depicted exactly like in a horror movie. The moths fly creepily away from the closet as the mom moves slowly towards it, and when she opens the doors there are a few seconds where we see her horrified reaction but don’t know what’s going on. There’s even a dangling lightbulb, which is like the scariest image imaginable. Then Hannah comes in behind her in the dark room and the mother totally loses it.

Hannah’s family tries to get her help, but Hannah just becomes more and more murderous. I think we can all agree that a shot of her crouching next to her brother’s bed watching him until he wakes up is a bit much, right? What happens after that, with Hannah using her brother’s computer to go to the site she’s forbidden from looking at and imagining a conversation with ButterflyAna that ends in a kiss, followed by her staring up at her brother in the dark like a psychopath, is also a bit much, yes?

Soon after that the movie goes from “Whoa, a little intense there” to “Ugh, really?!” For much of the movie, Hannah has been receiving messages from someone who used to go on the thinspiration site warning her not to talk to Ana because she’s a bad influence. Hannah thinks it must be her friend Kayden, who’s also mad at her because Hannah slept with her boyfriend (I would have mentioned that before but zzzzz). As it turns out, it was actually her brother the whole time. We discover this because he collapses during a wrestling match, and Hannah pieces together that he’s anorexic too, and that’s proven by the fact that he has “don’t eat” carved into his stomach.

Sigh. How convenient. It’s also convenient that the brother then dies to give Hannah the motivation she needs to get better. Meanwhile the dad who made all this worse is just like, “He’s a boy! He’s an athlete! Anorexia? He couldn’t possibly!” Of course Hannah then rips down all of her thinspiration pictures and starts to turn her life around. That leads her to seek out ButterflyAna. The movie never explains how in the world she found her. First of all, I can’t imagine she would ever give out her identity or where she lived. And also, this is the Internet. She could live halfway across the world. But this it’s a Lifetime movie, so Hannah just shows up in her backyard. She tells her about her brother’s death and realizes that this girl is even more destroyed by her disorder than Hannah.

The movie ends with Hannah creating an anti-Ana website. There’s a montage of inspirational posts intercut with Hannah giving an emotional dance performance. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me tear up a little. The combination of body-positive messages and elegant dance routines is a recipe for disaster where I’m concerned. But I stand by my opinion that the horror movie thing went a little overboard. As did that twist. And the butterfly. Seriously, can we stop putting symbolic butterflies in movies about sad teenagers? That would be great.

(Photo: Lifetime)

You can reach this post's author, Jill O’Rourke, on twitter.
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    • Trevor

      Laura Wiggins was really good in this movie. And I agree that this movie was really intense and, at times, felt like a horror film. I like how Lifetime makes sure to address that girls aren’t the only victim of eating disorders. This is one my favorite Lifetime movies, hands down.

    • Cbalducc

      All of these songs played during “sensitive” moments in these movies started sounding alike to me LOOOONG ago!
      I live in a place that has the opposite problem shown in SIS. “Thickness” is the rule here. Will there be a “Scarfing in Suburbia”?

    • Autumn

      I didn’t like the movie. It was unrealistic to what people with eating disorders are like and mostly glamorizes them. If anything it promoted eating disorders then try to help kids not get them. It gave the Pro ana community a bad image. They are not like that, they are actually quite supporting and encouraging to people trying to get into recovery. It gave a horrible image and horrible clique scenes.

      • asdfa

        Former anorexic: Yeah, now they are because a lot of sites are blocking true pro-anorexia material. A few years ago, this was not the case. You could easily google hundreds of forums to help you get sicker. Now, you have to dig quite a bit deeper. To find real thinspo, not fitspo.

      • Katie

        I’m sorry but Pro-Ana sites are exactly that.. PRO Anorexia- as in FOR Anorexia. They do not support recovery at all, quite the opposite. There are recovery sites out there but they certainly aren’t labeled pro-ana. PLEASE do your research before making an inane comment like that.

      • Duhdum

        That’s a lie- I’m part of one and they literally will bite you head off if you use the words “tip” “become ana” or “get sicker”

        It becomes a mob of mad people

        YOU do your research

      • Charity Means

        Because most of these sites started out as how-to guides for eating disorders. As time goes by, more and more awareness (even if the public is still grossly and widely misinformed about the specifics of eating disorders) and more and more people are accepting their bodies. The environmental stress part of the eating disorder development recipe is becoming (nominally) lesser. Also, as I previously mentioned, many forums and networking apps ban true pro-ana material and will take down everything if you even try in the first place.

      • Me Too

        I wonder if you and I are part of the same forum…

      • C$$

        Can I ask how it glamorized eating disorders? I am interested to hear your opinion because I actually thought that this movie glamorized eating disorders less than other movies, especially other lifetime movies that have attempted to depict eating disorders.

        I definitely agree with you that it gave the pro ana community a bad image. Most pro ana communities that I’ve viewed support recovery.. they view anorexia as a disease and an addiction, and if someone is lucky enough to recover, then they support the person 100%.

    • Autumn

      Not all people with eating disorders are “OMG ANA YOU ARE MY GOD” “ANA MAKE ME PERFECT” This movie was awful. But i will say that the actress was good.

    • asdfdadf

      I’m a former anorexic and don’t think the movie went too far at all. I completely related to almost all of what Hannah did and everything she felt. The lashing out at her dance teacher and best friend for not having the willpower to starve like her, the feeling victimized by everyone, the manipulation (stealing her best friend’s boyfriend), doing anything to hurt yourself more as punishment for not being thin enough (hooking up with her best friend’s boyfriend even though she was uncomfortable), the terrifying feeling of having people find your food and diary (in this case internet forum), the not feeling she’s worthy of a relationship because her relationship with anorexia is more important, the loss of control and eventual bingeing then firestorm of guilt afterwords, the perfectionism….I was impressed with how realistic a Lifetime movie was (for once). The only thing that was far fetched was Hannah confronting Butterfly in person (how could she track Butterfly down with her computer confiscated and in that short amount of time) and her brother dying from anorexia so fast (it takes most anorexics/bulimics several years to finally wear their body to death).

      • C$$

        I completely agree with that you said, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    • Rebecca

      Movie was awful! My 19 year old daughter has been dealing with anorexia since she was 14. The writer was so far off it really disapointed me. This could have been a chance to bring the problem to the forefront and instead It made it into pure crazy!

    • anonymouss

      When hannahs friend showed her the site, she told her anabutterfly was a friend of her cousins, that’s how they were able to confront her at the end.

      • Jill O’Rourke

        Ah, I had forgotten that. I don’t think they mentioned it again after that first conversation. Thanks for pointing that out.

    • Leia

      Having lived through my daughter’s AN onset and continuing recovery, all I can say is that this movie does reflect a sliver of how horrible this disease is. AN possesses someone like a demon and living with my daughter was a horror movie. I’m so thankful she is in a better place now — we are lucky to have found good treatment.

    • C$$

      I appreciate that this movie took a different route than past movies depicting eating disorders. Lots of pro-ana pro-mia blogs show that having an eating disorder is an
      addiction, and that’s where the demon came from. Yes, it was similar
      to a horror movie at times, but I don’t believe that it was dramatic or
      over the top in the least bit. People with eating disorders are like
      any other population- they vary in their experiences, and no two experiences
      are the same. However, I do know from experience that many people have gone
      through much of this scenario. This movie may not speak for everyone
      with an eating disorder, but I do think that it uncovers a different
      piece of the puzzle. It shows the darker side, and
      unlike movies created in the past- the cyber side, and I applaud it for
      that.

    • That_Darn_Kat

      Do ya’ll remember For the Love of Nancy? It was a 90s movie, with Tracy Gold, about a girl going through anorexia. I always thought that was a good movie to portray everything (especially since Gold had suffered through an ED). Of course, that’s been 20 years since it came out, so my memory is hazy. I do remember catching it on tv at one point when I was anorexic, and it was just one of the things that pushed me towards recovery.

    • ImaDlight

      I completely agree with the movie and feel lifetime did a good job at depicting what ED/Ana can do yo someone. I also struggled with an eating disorder for over 10 years. People who have never battled with an ED don’t fully trap the reality of this movie. It was like have a daemon inside my head who tortured me for not being thin enough. I was my own worse enemy. Having friends who were thinner than I only fueled my determination to allow my ED to control my life. This was an amazing movie and it reminded what God helped me overcome.

    • C S

      What I couldn’t get was the scale numbers. Now….maybe the producers decided to make her weight a bit higher than what we’d consider scary in order to warn young girls that “you can be this weight and still have a serious problem”….BUT it really was very unrealistic.
      What I’m referring to is Hannah. Hannah is tiny. She can’t be ANY taller than 5’2. This is easily seen when seeing her next to her very tall best friend, or even her mother, who looked to be of average height. So they had Hannah originally at 128. But later they had her at 116 with her hair falling out. REALLY? I couldn’t buy that one. Again, this girl is little! 116 for a petite framed…and actually SHORT high school girl who takes DANCE (she’s athletic and has a decent metabolism), might be normal to heavier than average! Yet they have her hair falling out. Silly.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m by no means saying that 116 is heavy…by no means. What I’m saying is that the numbers made no sense. I was almost my full height in high school. (I was 5’8 then) and I weighed 117. Yes I ran track, but I ate like a horse and I was NOT skin and bones. Just slim and athletic. And the show has Hannah who is over a half foot shorter than I was and very petite to begin with, AND still small boned because shes only a teenager, yet her hair is falling out and she looked like something from the Walking Dead. It was dumb.

      That being said, I really did like it. I thought Lifetime did a good job with depicting how Hannah or anyone can be sucked in by what they think is “alluring” and then they flipped the switch and we really got the sense of the horror. It was dramatic but effective.

      I also thought it was great that it didn’t leave the men out, though the Dad was a TOOL (though that was the point…poor kid) and they had that kid weigh in at 113…meanwhile he looked to be at least 150lbs or more LOL. But its a movie and the numbers don’t matter…its the issue behind those numbers that’s important. (But I still thought that part was depicted poorly).

      • Charity Means

        I do agree that it felt like we were watching the movie at 2x fast forward speed. However, it’s malnutrition in general that causes hair loss. Therefore, one can start to experience hair loss at as normal as 116–it’s just unlikely. Also, weight is not the only thing that made her look like a zombie. It’s also exhaustion from over-exercising, dehydration from purging (which was implied, but not explicitly shown), sleep deprivation (when I was anorexic I would exercise at 2 and 3 in the morning, fall asleep, then work out more at 6 in the morning), and malnutrition. I was a normal weight at my lowest during my year of anorexia and because of my large bone structure, the upper half of my body looked gaunt even though I was fine besides losing my period (which didn’t come back until about 6 months later even though I weighed 136).

    • prettyassdominque

      ButterflyAna is Kayden’s cousin friend so that’s how she tracked her dwn so easily.

    • dfghjkjhgf

      What’s wrong with the twist? Because he’s a male or because he’s a sibling?

      • Jill O’Rourke

        A sibling. I think it’s great that the movie showed eating disorders don’t just affect women, but the way they did it felt over-the-top. It was like a convenient incentive for the girl to try to get better.

      • dfghjkjhgf

        I can see that. However the father was putting a lot of pressure on him to lose weight. I was anticipating it throughout the movie. As a male with an ED I was happy about it.

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    • ELS

      As someone who has had an ED for 11 years, this movie was HORRIBLE and completely inaccurate in my opinion. It made people with EDs look completely nuts, and it had every ED cliche in the book in there. Plus, she REALLY sucked at hiding her ED. I mean, everyone I know with an ED can usually keep it hidden for years before anyone realizes. Plus, the leaving the laptop open on a thinspo site? How stupid do you have to be? Honestly, most parents, even if they did see the pro-ana site, wouldn’t take any alarm to it. They tend to just ignore the situation until it gets REALLY bad. And the had the diagnoses completely backwards. Hannah would be more of an Anorexic, while her brother would be more EDNOS(it was weird to me that when they diagnosed Hannah as EDNOS, they gave no reason to it, because IT DIDN’T MAKE SENSE). And all the weird chanting of all these random pro-ana quotes and making her look demon possessed… Just, what the Hell? And as far as her little B/P session, I wasn’t sure if she was purging afterwards or just throwing up because they amount of food; but if it was purging, that was not even close to what it is like. Lol. It was another ED movie that sort of glorified that you can have an ED, get skinny, everyone will love and care about you, then you’ll be able to recover all of a sudden and be fine. I will give Kudos to the plot twist, and at least attempting to look at male EDs, but that’s about it.
      I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I never cared for thinspo or any shit like that and my ED stemmed from elsewhere, but damn. This movie didn’t even land on the dart board, it bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. It sucks, because now everyone is going to think that they are experts because they watched this movie and this is how EDs are. NO. NOT AT ALL.

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    • diehard

      My daughter died at age 22, after a seven year battle with ED….the internet was what took her struggle to a much more intense level. She found enormous “support” for her ED through endless online sights. I was the enemy all of a sudden, as soon as I saw what she was going through (early on), and sought therapists that could help Kate and help me help Kate….then an ED treatment inpatient program… and another a year later…a wonderful one in Minnesota. We live in NY state, so we didn’t limit our search for help. It is a horrific way to live…I got through those years just looking forward to her recovery, and being able to enjoy life, with Kate again, as we once did. We traveled all over, Kate always willing to try new experiences and see new places. She had the best sense of humor…. she was the most incredible part of my life…my only child. Now, every moment of the day, try to comprehend how this happened… and what I could have done more or differently. Life without her is living a daily nightmare… one from which I cannot awake. It is a horror story…and more should be done to bring awareness to this disease… and more help from medical professionals and insurance… it is not a choice.. it is an illness. I would love more to be shown of the effects, not only on the patient, but the family also.

    • Alice

      To the people saying this movie is inaccurate, stop being ignorant.

      Not every person suffering from ED reacts the same way; just because you didn’t go through this doesn’t mean nobody else did.
      The movie hit so close to home in my case so stop telling me that what I was feeling was fake.

      Just because YOU didn’t have it like that doesn’t mean everybody else is like you, ignorant people.
      -
      Sorry for my English.

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