- Film & TV
- 04 Sep 19
Addiction recovery tale based on debunked memoir veers into cliché.
It seems 2019 is the year of the drug addiction films – not inherently a bad thing, particularly given the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics in the States. Yet it’s frustrating that after this year’s Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy, A Million Little Pieces marks yet another film about the experience of a young white man with a college education, supportive family, and access to expensive rehab facilities. There’s a question of whose stories are being ignored so this one can be told in multiple iterations – which brings us to James Frey.
A Million Little Pieces is based on Frey’s 2003 memoir, which became a bestseller due to its emotional impact and compelling narrative, faithfully recreated onscreen by writer and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. Except there’s a problem. These aren’t memories. Frey admitted – only after a lengthy public investigation – to fabricating much of his book. Despite this, Taylor-Johnson obviously believes A Million Little Pieces still holds essential, compelling truths worth telling onscreen. Does it?
In the lead, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who co-writes) brings volatility and soulfulness to his performance, evoking 20-something James’ recklessness and temper, but also his fear and shame. Recovery involves confronting your demons, and it becomes clear that on some level, James would rather die.
But for a film based on a “memoir”, we don’t get any insight into James’ past or personality. One-dimensionally written, James seems to exist solely for the numbingly conventional recovery narrative. He resists. He slowly forges connections with other addicts, including love interest Odessa Young, mafia boss Billy Bob Thornton (superb), and gay panic stereotype Giovanni Ribisi. He finds hope. He saves a life. He recovers. He never relapses.
The narrative arc is too slick, too easily redemptive, too Hollywood – which is perhaps why the director and lead actor lean into portraying the bodily experience of addiction and recovery, showing James’ physically intense and exposing rock-bottom moment; his physically torturous withdrawal; and the harrowing (and fabricated) experience of enduring a root canal without any painkillers. There are also intriguing – if too-sporadic – dream-like sequences, featuring rivers of mud and burning rooms, depicting James’ struggle.
The Taylor-Johnsons are individually talented and commit to this project, but A Million Little Pieces ultimately encapsulates the problem with its source material: it’s too pre-occupied with providing a broadly appealing recovery-by-numbers story to provide any emotional or psychological truth.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Odessa Young, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis. 113 mins. In cinemas now. 2.5/5