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.