[Nightmarish Detour Review] A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES is the latest film from director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) based on James Frey’s infamous and controversial “memoir” about his journey through drug and alcohol addiction as well as his sobriety. The film stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade), Juliette Lewis (Ma), Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar), and Odessa Young (Assassination Nation). To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis:

“An alcoholic and a drug addict, 23-year-old James has two options: treatment or death. After waking up on a plane with a smashed up face and no memory of the past few weeks, he heads to rehab where he discovers much more than detox and therapy. As James endures the white-knuckle journey of mending his broken body, he heals his broken soul by connecting with other kindred spirits who also yearn and fight for a better life.”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

I’m sure many of us remember that in 2006 James Frey got dragged by Oprah Winfrey after it came out that his memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was much more fictional than originally thought. It was around this time that I was also dealing with my own demons in regards to alcohol addiction. Though I would never have admitted that I had a problem, I was looking forward to reading the book. However, when it came out that James had lied, I ended up putting the book back on the shelf and eventually forgetting about it. Seven years later, I would end up getting sober and now, in 2019, as I approach my 9-1/2 years of sobriety, a film version of the book has been adapted. Since so much time had passed since James Frey debacle I figured this would be a good time to see what the film had to offer for those of us who have suffered from addiction.

The film opens with James (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) awakening on a plane, with his face bruised and bashed in, and very little recollection of what happened. Upon landing, his brother Bob Frey Jr. (Charlie Hunnam) takes him to rehab explaining that James’ life is in shambles and he needs to get help. James, in a daze, goes along with it, but it’s quickly apparent that he doesn’t have any intention of going through the entire program. Throughout his time in rehab, he deals with horrific withdrawals, as well as the process of coming to terms with his own anger and addiction. Rehab is not an easy experience for him, especially since he doesn’t believe in the 12-step program and its ties to religion. As the viewer, we watch as he struggles to come to terms with how his addiction has impacted those he loves and cares for the most as well as the conflict of wanting to have that next high but also wanting to survive. While in rehab, he connects with a young woman named Lilly (Odessa Young) and though they bond over their mutual love for drugs, they both decide to give it their all and get sober. That said, addiction still reels its ugly head and James finds himself torn between the comfort that his demons possess and the help that is available to him to get clean.

Odessa Young and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

I think it’s important to give some background about myself before diving into this review. As I mentioned earlier, I’m coming up on 9-1/2 years of sobriety, something that has not been an easy feat but one that I’m incredibly proud of. Similar to James, I one day woke up in the hospital with a bashed-in face and very little memory of how I got there. I had been suffering from alcohol addiction for almost a decade at that point and though the severity of it was on and off, depending on what was going on in my life, the effects it had on my family and loved one were non-stop. After that hospital stay, I got sober cold-turkey, and haven’t had a drink since. I went through withdrawals, I went to AA but ultimately found that having a strong support system was the key to my success. All that said, watching A MILLION LITTLE PIECES brought back a lot of unsavory memories I was not prepared for but, on the flip side, was a reminder of how far I’ve come.

As a whole, I enjoyed A MILLION LITTLE PIECES and felt like the message wasn’t too heavy-handed. Addiction is a real issue and it ruins countless lives every single day, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you are willing to put in the work. I think the film did a great job of showing that it’s not an easy road to be on but that there are people who are willing to help and guide you through the worst of times. One of the more poignant moments of the film, for me, actually had to do with the character Roy (played by David Dastmalchian). He’s an asshole who thinks he knows what’s best for everyone because he’s been sober for a bit while in rehab. Though his role isn’t large, and his character isn’t that likable, Roy is one of those people who you think, “He’s going to make it once he leaves rehab.” However, addiction affects everyone differently and his story, unfortunately, doesn’t go the way in which he hopes it would. A MILLION LITTLE PIECES doesn’t downplay the difficulties that one faces in rehab, but it also gives hope in a realistic manner. There are many moments in which our characters face tragedy and heartache and though that may seem counterintuitive, it’s those moments in which they’ll understand the importance of dealing with issues in a sober manner.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

Aaron Taylor-Johnson does a superb job of portraying James Frey as there is a grittiness to his performance but also an emotional pull that easily drags you in. I’ve been a fan of his from both Kick-Ass and Nocturnal Animals, but his performance in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES might just be one of my favorites. He comes across as an “everyday” type of guy which makes it easy to relate to him. His emotional range also helps in regards to wanting to see his character pull through and defeat his addiction. The film also features a lot of other big-name actors such as Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis, and Giovanni Ribisi, but I felt like their roles, with the exception of Billy Bob, were glossed over. That said, I do feel like some of the pacing was off and I think it was due to these secondary actors. There were times that I felt like we should know more about these characters but were left stranded instead. Particularly, I wish we got a better understanding of how Odessa Young’s character, Lilly, came to a decision in the second half of the film. I’m not sure if expanding on the secondary characters would have helped in the overall telling of the story, but I think it would have helped in cushioning the pacing and tone a bit more so that their storylines didn’t seem so jagged.

I’m glad a film like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES exists because it’s a reminder that life with an addiction doesn’t have to be hopeless. I think Sam Taylor-Johnson did a great job bringing the source material to life and I really hope we continue to see more work from her in the future. I will say, her eye for visuals really added to the film, especially during the more surreal/dream-like moments. Those artistic choices were ones that I really appreciated because sometimes words don’t do the justice needed when exploring harrowing moments in someone’s life. I hope because of films like this more people will begin to talk about addiction as a disease instead of looking down on those of us who have suffered or are still suffering. 16 years after the book debuted I’m still not overly thrilled with how James Frey handled it, but if it means that the book and/or movie will help someone in need than that is a win. A MILLION LITTLE PIECES is now in theaters and On Demand.

Shannon McGrew
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