Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Note: the following review may contain spoilers.
Growing up is hard. Our bodies and brains transform. We start to feel things we’ve never felt, think things we’ve never thought, and want things we’ve never wanted. We feel gross, out of control, sometimes even evil, and very often alone. Disappointingly, the world around us offers little in the way of comfort, particularly if we seem to be hurtling against the grain. It’s only natural, then, that few early experiences are as formative as finding that someone – a first love, a best friend, a mentor– with whom we can feel less gross, less evil, and a little more in control. Or, at the very least, someone who will let us know that they love us anyway.
Such emotionally fertile ground has borne fruit for Luca Guadagnino before, most notably with 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, adapted from André Aciman’s disarming and deeply challenging 2007 novel of the same name. The film made a once-in-a-generation star out of Timothée Chalamet and cemented Guadagnino as a filmmaker to watch. On the surface, the duo’s latest effort bears little resemblance to their previous collaboration, but deep inside, beneath skin and bone, a kindred heart beats.
Bones and All, adapted from a 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis, tells the story of Maren (Taylor Russell), a teenage girl with an increasingly insatiable hunger for human flesh. She lives with her well-intentioned father (André Holland), but her proclivities have forced the pair to live on the run, hopping states and changing names every time Maren kills a babysitter or takes a bite out of someone. When she skins a friend’s finger at a slumber party, her father can’t take it any longer; he leaves her with a message on a cassette tape, her birth certificate, and a goodbye – forever.
Utterly alone, Maren embarks on a road trip across the American Midwest to find the only real connection she has left: her absent mother Janelle (Chloe Sevigny), of whom she knows little more than a name and a birthplace. Along the way, she is shocked to meet other “eaters,” including the charming young Lee (Chalamet) and the unnerving, obsessive Sully (a bizarre and terrifying Mark Rylance). Maren and Lee fall madly for one another, tasting forbidden fruit and building a future all while running from their past, the law, and more capricious eaters like Sully.
David Kajganich’s script provides a solid skeleton for Bones and All, but Guadagnino’s direction brings the meat: a raw, aching humanity that could have easily been neglected in different hands. Russell and Chalamet back it up with earnest, vulnerable performances that anchor Maren and Lee in reality. We really believe they must do what they do. This is essential to one of the film’s most remarkable achievements: to beautiful effect, it challenges our instinctive feelings about cannibalism, transforming the violent taboo into an allegory for the most urgent of our desires. In the moment before Maren attacks a girl at the beginning of the film, it feels just as likely that she’s about to pull her in for a passionate kiss. This is a testament to Russell’s talents and, no doubt, Guadanigno’s gift for capturing passion and eroticism.
Maren and Lee dominate the runtime of Bones and All, with adults like Janelle and Sully serving as important but peripheral foils to the young protagonists. They represent the encroaching horrors of the adult world, of which both Maren and Lee have been made victims. Like so many of us once did, they vow emphatically that they will never be like their parents, or indeed any other adult they know. Their world is separate. To them, it’s that simple. The dynamic is cleverly written and again brought to life with suitably adolescent conviction by Russell and Chalamet.
In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, an eater named Jake (played unrecognizably by Chalamet’s CMBYN co-star Michael Stuhlbarg), asks Lee and Maren if they’ve ever eaten “the whole thing.” Lee asks what he means. It is then that the film’s title is uttered: “bones and all.” Jake claims that eating another person in their entirety, as opposed to just picking their bones, is something different, a transcendent experience even. The young lovers seem skeptical. As the film progresses, the significance of this idea grows clearer and clearer. If the urges of the eaters are a stand-in for the most irrepressible of our desires– to fuck, to love, to know and be known – then the transcendence of eating someone, bones and all, is the most profound manifestation of this yearning. “Bones and all” is the mother who wishes she could take her growing child and push them back inside her, the lover who can’t tell the difference between their body and the one they’re with. Have you ever looked at someone and wished you could just pull them inside forever?
“You don’t think I’m a bad person?” Lee asks Maren toward the end of the film. He’s just shared the darkest parts of himself. “All I think is that I love you,” she replies. They have no idea that their life together will be cut short. Lee will soon suffer a mortal wound after a final run-in with Sully. He accepts his fate, making a final request of the devastated Maren. “Eat me. Bones and all.” In a stunning finale, tearfully, she does.
Bones and All is a sick little magic trick of a movie. Through committed performances and Guadagnino’s singular vision, it blurs and transcends every notion of genre. I watched a young girl eat her dying boyfriend with little disgust or horror; in fact, I was moved. Bones and All reminds us that in the ecstasy and pain of first love, we might have done the same thing.