A Million Little Pieces

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

A Million Little Pieces
dir Sam Taylor-Johnson
scr Sam Taylor-Johnson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
prd Pamela Abdy, Alex Heineman, Andrew Rona
with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Charlie Hunnam, Odessa Young, Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi, Dash Mihok, David Dastmalchian, Charles Parnell, Eugene Byrd, Tom Amandes, Albert Malafronte
release UK 30.Aug.19,
US 6.Dec.19
18/US 1h53

hunnam young thornton

James Frey's controversial memoir becomes a complex addiction drama, adapted by director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her actor-husband Aaron. It's a full-on depiction of recovery, with a full-bodied performance by Aaron, so it's often harrowing to watch. But because the story is told through Frey's eyes, the film doesn't take the usual route through 12 steps. It's both snarky and sentimental and, as the title suggests, fragmented.
At rock bottom, a delirious James (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads into rehab in Minneapolis, delivered by his brother Bob (Hunnam). A collection of people impact his weeks here, including therapist Joanne (Lewis), supervisor Lincoln (Mihok) and fellow patients such as the sensitive Lilly (Young), fatherly Leonard (Thornton), flamboyant John (Ribisi) and persnickety Roy (Dastmalchian). James rejects the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, working through his own variation on the 12 steps, in his own order. The problem is that he doesn't see why he should give up drugs that make him feel so good.
As a director, Sam Taylor-Johnson gives the film a terrific visual style, flickering into James' hallucinations and memories to reveal his internal struggle. This helps the audience experience how reality is so badly shaken for someone going through withdrawal and then attempting to rebuild themselves. As a result, the film keeps the emotions right on the surface, with a lot of crying, screaming and tantrum-throwing. This is of course fine grist for a solid cast like this one.

The role stretches Aaron Taylor-Johnson in various directions, since it includes wild action, snarky comedy, sweet romance and very dark emotions. There are moments when the performance perhaps feels too big, but it's engaging and believable, and he makes its easy to identify with James' cynicism and his self-image, which takes a battering along the way. While Ribisi delivers a show-stopping side performance, Thornton quietly commands scenes with a beautifully understated turn as a man who understands his fragility.

In presenting this as fiction, the Taylor-Johnsons avoid the controversy that nearly scuppered Frey's career. Clearly, many things in this film actually happened, and it's a rare movie about addiction that remains specific rather than universal. James' journey through this stint in rehab stubbornly refuses to take the usual route, his catharses don't come from the expected places and his relationships develop on their own terms, rather than from a movie formula. And it's this sense of realism, combined with the raw performances, that makes the film memorable.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, nudity 15.Aug.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall