James Frey published his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” in 2003. Acclaimed on its release, Frey’s book courted controversy after he admitted that parts of his real life story where in fact fiction.
A controversy that was heightened through an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show; Oprah asking Frey to apologise to readers over his use of fictional elements within the apparent memoir.
15 years later the scuffle that ensued seems slightly over egged. After all how many books labelled memoirs that we read are totally based in fact? However, at the time this led to many people feeling cheated by the author. A dark cloud hanging over the novel as bookstores re-labelled it as fiction.
Sam Taylor-Johnsons adaptation of Frey’s novel comes in a year when addiction drama’s have sat front and centre in cinema with mixed success. From the powerful ‘Beautiful Boy’ to the limp melodrama ‘Ben is Back‘ and the sublime ‘The Souvenir‘. Addiction and recovery have been a core staple of the 2019 film journey.
A Million Little Pieces therefore needed to offer something unique, and there are moments where it achieves this. With emotional performances and beautifully framed cinematography that play to the darkness and light of the recovery process. Equally, direction is strong from Sam Taylor-Johnson, alongside a gripping central performance from her husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson. However, ultimately A Million Little Pieces failure lies within its story. A story that offers little that’s new or fresh to the addiction and recovery genre surrounding it. Opting for tried and tested themes above artistic risk.
Opening with an orgy of drugs and dance that leads to Frey falling from a balcony. The young man finds himself on a plane, his broken and battered body matching his internal addictive state. Placed by his brother (Charlie Hunnam) into a Minnesota rehab centre. Frey must face the demons of his past, and the darkness of his addiction. His fellow room mates providing support and challenge in equal measure, his path to recovery ultimately in his own hands.
A Million Little Pieces struggles to define its core message throughout the rehabilitation journey. Bouncing from the importance of self discovery and self healing, to the role of organised therapy. Leaving the audience slightly unclear on the core messages at play. Many of the characters surrounding Frey in rehab feel contrived and simple alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnsons powerhouse performance. Creating a disjointed narrative, where characters often feel placed in scenes to create an emotional link rather than to enhance the story.
The real strength and emotional pull comes from its reflection of the need for us all to face the inner ghosts of our past, no matter how hard. While the standard therapy and group aspects of the recovery process feel less clear. A mix of hospital based therapy and generic characters leading to a feeling of déjà vu in the films style. Equally there are mixed messages at play in the religious inflections of the therapy model. Frey finding his own spiritual journey to that of the establishment. With interesting themes of religion in recovery left hanging and never fully explored.
Despite a solid script the films main problem lies within the source material; adapting a book that sits between reality and fiction. Something that feels even more stark in its translation to film. Scenes that grip and surround the audience with the darkness and internal terror of addiction. Suddenly shifting to events that feel copied from the wider body of addiction literature and film.
Direction and performances save A Million Little Pieces from mediocrity. The vision of Sam Taylor-Johnson and acting prowess of her husband leading to final product that at times shines in its narrative and vision. However, despite some real emotional impact, neither director nor actor can save the film from a story that ultimately feels slightly bland and unoriginal.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, Charlie Hunnam, Odessa Young, Dash Mihok, Eugene Byrd, Charles Parnell, David Dastmalchian.