The most disturbing women’s-prison movie to come out in a long time might be the HBO documentary Thin, about four women being treated for eating disorders at a facility in Florida called Renfrew. This isn’t a classic bad-girls-behind-bars picture, but there is an ever-vigilant staff at Renfrew. The doctors, therapists and nutritionists carefully monitor the patients because they are dealing with women who often don’t see themselves as sick — they view Renfrew as a locked cage instead of a passageway to health and sanity. The patients’ brief moments of rebellion and happiness are inevitably double-edged, because they typically involve keeping secrets that could hamper their chance for recovery. Trust is a major issue that director Lauren Greenfield explores. By the film’s end, we are wholly invested in the fortunes of these sad, hurting women, physically spent by the wasting nature of their disease, yet mentally cautious about the self-delusions that distort their image of themselves.
Even so, I wish Greenfield’s film was less of a camera-trailing exercise and more of a probing, reported work. After a first, then a second and a third woman hears that she’ll have to leave Renfrew because her insurance ran out, Greenfield doesn’t expand her already serious and compassionate efforts to investigate the corridors of health-care power, where such callous decisions can have the most devastating effect on those who need the most help. Thin may not be the most factually illuminating of documentaries about a strange, misunderstood problem in a land of plenty, but it still resonates as a character study of illness, suffering and captivity.