The film, Little Miss Perfect, opens on a sunny fall day at a prep school. Protagonist Belle bursts into a smile when she discovers she has been elected freshman class president. But in the next scene, her eyes flicker with shame when receives a B+ on her English essay—a blow to the perfectionist expectations to which she holds herself. As the movie unfolds, it becomes apparent that much trouble brews beneath Belle’s bubbly countenance. Her mother has abandoned the family, which her father copes with by diving into work and neglecting his daughter. Belle responds to the pain of these parental betrayals by honing in on the only thing she feels she can control in her chaotic world: her weight.
Little Miss Perfect takes place over the course of Belle’s freshman year, tracking her descent into the grips of anorexia nervosa, the psychiatric disorder that currently holds the highest mortality rate. The movie unpacks struggles with control, self-worth, and perfectionism that afflict so many young adults in America today, and also highlights cyber-bullying and the danger of pro-eating disorder blogs.
I viewed the film on March 24, 2016 at a private screening in New York City with several of my colleagues from Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists. I
developed anorexia in middle school, and was consumed by it by the time I was Belle’s age, so the movie stirred up a lot in me emotionally. Along with my colleagues, I wondered if the film would have been helpful or harmful for me to see as an adolescent—there were several raw depictions of eating disorder behaviors and self-harm which were difficult to watch. But at the same time, it was also comforting to see many of my own experiences reflected in another’s life—this provided that “me, too!” validation and connection that is an antidote to the intrinsic isolation of the disorder.
Director Marlee Roberts studied film in graduate school, where she was inspired to adapt the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” into a story where the two characters were manifested in one person. In Little Miss Perfect, two sides of Belle are depicted: her healthy self (Beauty) and her eating disorder (the beast). Special effects make up is used in several scenes to depict this duality.
The cinematography is striking. Roberts wanted viewers to not just see Belle’s experience, but feel it with her. Purples dominate during Belle’s period of unhealthiness, and the palate evolves into yellow hues to symbolize hope as Belle begins healing. Camera movements also work to capture the emotional and psychological nature of the disorder—for example, when Belle is severely compromised by a lack of nourishment, the camera is shaky and images blurry.
Inspired by her personal experiences of hovering on the edge of an eating disorder, Roberts wanted to create a public context for having a conversation about them. Her film serves to spark a dialogue about the insidious and layered facets of eating disorders, which involve so much more than just negative body image—at the core, they are about identity and worthiness. It can be very hard to avoid glamorizing eating disorders, which the media does so often, but Roberts has done an admirable job of attempting to capture the nuances of this complex disorder without romanticizing it.
Robert’s artistic depiction of anorexia was informed by research she did with a child psychologist at NYU. Her intention with the film is for it to serve as an educational resource at schools and for parents and educators. Members of the audience at the screening who had struggled with eating disorders in the past or currently work in the field of eating disorder treatment stated that the film cast a vivid and accurate portrayal of the disorder.
While ostensibly Belle’s story, the film also depicts how her friends, boyfriend, teacher, and father are affected by the disorder, making it a must-see for caregivers and others who are close to someone with anorexia. Director of Nutrition at Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists Maiken Wiese felt the film “was very impactful in the way it addressed both the struggles of Belle and the powerlessness of the people who love and care about her. I think it will be an eye-opener to many who have watched someone they care about struggle with an eating disorder.”
Robert’s younger sister Karlee stars as Belle. At the time of shooting, all the child actors were just twelve to fifteen years old. Karlee attended the NYC screening, and agreed with her sister that the film toes the line of suitability for adolescents, but they also believe it has the potential to serve as a significant educational resource and to help challenge the stigma that often relegates eating disorders to a realm of silence.
After the screening, Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund hosted a Q&A with Roberts. Inspired to become an eating disorder recovery advocate by her own struggles with an eating disorder, Haglund now does media work for eating disorder treatment center Timberline Knolls, and frequently speaks on college campuses.
New York City actor Paco Lozano, an audience member at the NYC screening, shared how the film affected him: “(Belle) talks about control at the beginning and the end (of the film), and control is the thing that made my life so small…There is so much unknown and so much mystery and so much beauty and freedom in knowing I’m not in charge. Walking that journey and recovering from my own demons has brought an abundance of people into my life who I love and value in ways I wasn’t able to before.” Paco’s response demonstrates the potential for Little Miss Perfect to inspire viewers to reflect on their own journeys, regardless of if they have experienced an eating disorder firsthand or not.
I asked Roberts what her greatest “aha” moment from making this film was, and she responded that it was “about my relationship with control and self worth.” She described how, while writing the final voice over (in which Belle identifies as being “in recovery” from anorexia), she came to the realization that she too is in a sort of recovery from self-destructive thoughts and behaviors based in perfectionism and feeling “less-than.”
Distributors are negotiating public release options, and in the meantime it is being shown at film festivals and private screenings. For more information on how to see it, visit www.littlemissperfectmovie.com.
Blog post written by Annie Robinson, Narrative Coaching Specialist at Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists.