In 2003 James Frey published his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces”; a biographical novel that initially received widespread acclaimed. However, just a few years later, the same book would go on to court controversy; with the author admitting to some aspects of his story being fiction. The controversy only heightened by an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show. Where Oprah duly asked Frey to apologise to his readers. Fifteen years on the scuffle that ensued seems slightly over-egged. After all, how many books labelled memoirs are 100% based in fact? However, this does create a strange dynamic in translating his book to the screen. One grounded in a discussion around the very realities the story attempts to portray.
In addition to this director, Sam Taylor-Johnsons adaptation comes during a year when addiction drama’s have sat front and centre in cinema with mixed success. From the powerful ‘Beautiful Boy’ to the limp ‘Ben is Back‘ and the frustrating ‘The Souvenir‘. Leading to questions over whether cinema-goers have reached peak drugs and drama viewing on the silver screen.
To counteract this A Million Little Pieces needed to offer something unique and different to the films that have come before it; with brief moments where it achieves this. The films strong performances dovetailing with cinematography that plays to the light and dark of the recovery process. Equally, the direction of the film is strong from Sam Taylor-Johnson, especially when coupled with the gripping central performance from her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. However, despite this ‘A Million Little Pieces’ fails to circumnavigate the weaknesses of Frey’s novel.
Opening with an orgy of drugs and dance that leads to Frey falling from a balcony. The damaged young man finds himself on a plane, his broken and battered body matching his internal addictive state. His rescuer and brother (Charlie Hunnam) booking Frey into a Minnesota rehab centre for his safety. A place where Frey must face the demons of his past and the danger of his addictive state.
However, A Million Little Pieces struggles to define a core message as we follow Frey through rehabilitation. Bouncing from the importance of self-discovery and healing to the value of organised therapy. Not only leaving the audience slightly unclear on the journey undertaken but adding a love affair into the confusion. Meanwhile, many of the characters surrounding Frey in rehab feel contrived and simplistic. Creating a disjointed narrative, where characters are randomly placed to create an emotional connection rather than enhance the story.
The strength of the film’s narrative ultimately lays in an exploration of the individual. And the unspoken ghosts of past choices, rather than the convoluted process of rehab. Something never more evident than within the religious themes of the therapy model used. The film favouring personal growth and discovery over orchestrated activities based on faith. With Frey eventually finding his spiritual journey in opposition to the establishment. However, these fascinating themes are left hanging, never receiving the attention they deserve.
Direction and performances save A Million Little Pieces from mediocrity. The vision of Sam Taylor-Johnson and acting prowess of her husband leading to a final product that, at times, shines in its narrative and vision. However, despite some real emotional impact, neither director nor actors can save the film from a story that ultimately feels bland and uninspiring.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson