A Million little pieces

Review by Dara McWade

Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as James Frey in  A Million Little Pieces .

Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as James Frey in A Million Little Pieces.

A Million Little Pieces doesn’t have the most original take on addiction. Its perspective has been covered endlessly (and better) elsewhere. It even made me question its accuracy to the experiences of addiction. This likely stems from its source material, a popular novel by James Frey that was, unfortunately, marketed as a memoir. Frey suffered from a very public evisceration in the wake of the book’s release: although Frey did suffer from addiction, the experiences he tells of in his book are largely fictionalized. What this film does have, however, is a brilliantly intense focus on the emotional truths of addiction. The action covers the darkest chapter on the journey of self-healing; the part where you witness the sickness-ridden shell of the person you used to be, forgive them, and move on. 

This adaptation comes from Sam Taylor-Johnson, a filmmaker whose last work, 50 Shades of Grey, suffered heavily from studio meddling and was met with mixed reactions. Her work here shines though, bringing a virile intensity to the controversial material. Said material focuses on a fictionalized Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as he resentfully enters rehabilitation for drugs and alcohol after an accident. The film opens with Frey dancing naked, high on speed and self-destruction, careening towards a brutal injury. What follows is a dance through beautifully rendered blood, feces, un-anesthetized dental surgeries, and half-vomited alcohol. Sam is a visual stylist first, and this unconventional imagery illustrates the struggles and beauties of recovery. They’re not empty, showy gestures. Taylor-Johnson has a knack for making those frequent breaks from naturalism sing with emotion. The choices she makes here are never conventional, which helps save the painfully conventional narrative. 

What follows is a dance through beautifully rendered blood, feces, un-anesthetized dental surgeries, and half-vomited alcohol.

This starts with her star and co-writer Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is absolutely electric in this film, delivering a high-intensity jolt of a performance. Sam understands what makes Aaron an engaging screen presence better than most of his recent collaborators (you’d hope so, seeing as he’s her husband). Oscillating from a physically threatening presence to somebody who is essentially a vulnerable child, Aaron gives the best kind of performance he can give: manic. He’s not your stoic soldier Godzilla, he’s Johnny Depp by way of mumblecore, delivering more with eccentric body language than his mumbled lines. Billy Bob Thornton is the stand-out supporting actor: a soulful mentor figure whose calm insistence deepens the picture. Odessa Young also stars as a believable but forgettable love interest. It is, evidently, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s star vehicle through and through. Even Charlie Hunnam gets short-shrift as an undeserved brother character. 

You haven’t heard of A Million Little Pieces, and you may not read much about it again. Premiering alongside Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back, two other, buzzier addiction dramas at TIFF last year didn’t help its impact, and the fallout of Frey’s disgrace has tainted the reputation of the material. This is unfortunate, as the Taylor-Johnsons’s deliver an unexpectedly moving meditation on forgiveness. It may be gross, but coming from the film, I’m not thinking about the gore or faeces. I’m thinking about the people that appear in Frey’s life; those who both forgive him, and tell him to forgive himself. It’s those tender scenes that this film should be remembered for. Unfortunately for it, there are several shots featuring Johnson’s prominent johnson. At least it’ll be remembered for something. 

A Million Little Pieces will open to select screens on August 30th.