Sam Taylor-Johnson’s take on the controversial ‘A Million Little Pieces’ makes story whole

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, A Million Little Pieces is a film adaptation of the esteemed, if a little infamous, memoir written by James Frey. The film centers around James, who goes to rehab for his addiction to alcohol and crack (among other things); an addiction that is both figuratively and literally killing him. A Million Little Pieces is beautifully filmed and at times quite affecting, but its overall story arc and an ultimate message about addiction are not fully realized. (JRL: 3/5) 

Review by FF2 intern Julia Lasker

At the start of the film, James dances around a messy room full of empty bottles and trash. In a trance of intoxication, he is completely nude and fully unaware of the small crowd of spectators that have gathered around him. When he steps outside to light a cigarette, he ends up falling completely off the porch in a drunken stupor. When he wakes up, he’s on a plane headed to a rehab facility in Minnesota. It is James’ brother who has decided enough is enough and signed him up for rehab. 

When James arrives at the facility he is, as many are, skeptical of the process and unwilling to participate. Maybe it’s because his brother watches encouragingly from the sidelines, or because he finds out that his organs are so damaged that one more drink could kill him, or because of the cute girl he isn’t supposed to talk to but can’t seem to resist, but somehow, he stays. 

James’ rehab journey is brutal. He is nearly destroyed by the symptoms of withdrawal, must grapple with the painful guilt of all the mistakes he’s made and the lives he’s damaged because of his addiction, and at one point he must even undergo dental surgery for an entirely new set of teeth without any medication for the pain. James’ suppressed rage and unwillingness to embrace the program certainly don’t help him through the process. But there is, perhaps, a light at the end of the tunnel for him, and it comes in the form of the people he meets at the center. One is Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), a lovable father figure-type who patiently guides him through his recovery. The other is Lily, a sweet but volatile young woman who takes an interest in James which he gladly reciprocates, despite the center’s strict rules on men and women talking to each other. Despite the people around him that show him love, James is facing a lifetime of addiction, and his battle to sober up is against basically all odds. 

Though the film is based off of a well-known memoir, the most beautiful and compelling part of A Million Pieces has to be the cinematography. From James’ opening dance sequence to the walls dripping with mud as he first walks into the rehab center to his food shrinking like a popped balloon when he looks at it, these eerie hyperreal moments are the ones that really capture the feeling of James’ addiction and subsequent recovery. 

The actual narrative of the film is comparatively less impeccable. James and Lily’s forbidden romance, though thrilling as a concept, is simply not believable. There is not enough time spent depicting the two of them forming their bond, both in the film and in the timeframe of the film (it takes place over the course of a month), and so when both of them make strong claims about their feelings for one another, you just don’t buy it. It’s also hard to get onboard with supporting James’ recovery, because we’re given no insight as to why it has to happen in the first place.

I worry that, given this shallow narrative arc, the whole film ends up just romanticizing recovery. After all, James is supposed to be one drink away from dying, and yet, barring a few cuts and bruises, he looks quite handsome, and his perfect six pack and sculpted arms are showcased several times throughout. But at the same time, certain moments in the film, like when James gets all of his teeth removed without anesthesia, are almost horror movie-level disturbing. These, combined with James’ unwaveringly dark attitude, seem like they do the pain and the struggle of recovery justice. A Million Little Pieces is definitely not the best rehab film out there, but it definitely deserves credit for its aesthetic creativity. 

Commentary by  Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

I felt that if James didn’t have a manic pixie dreamgirl to date during recovery he could have gotten a lot more personal development done. The relationship he has with Lily is the most obvious MPDG plotline I’ve ever seen; they meet when she comes over to him and asks if he wants to do cocaine with her, then adds “I don’t have any, just wanted to know if you want to do some.” It’s this kind of quote-unquote beautifully damaged character that turns any movie she’s in into a repertoire of “quirky” “humor.” She also of course has issues with depression and suicidal tendencies that make James have to take care of her in a fairly icky and one-dimensional way. The character development James does when he’s with this character is basically zilch; the most significant relationship he has in rehab is with Billy Bob Thornton’s character.  I do want to say that the aesthetics of this film are intensely immersive; one emerges from this film feeling like we’ve been drying out in a rehab facility for the past month. We reckon with the pain that drives James to abuse drugs, and then with the loss of his youth spent in that vicious cycle. It’s a visceral character study of a man who, as his brother says, has been consumed with rage ever since his parents brought him home from the hospital. It also makes us all feel less alone in the ways we’re messed up since we get to see the community these addicts find in the rehab clinic. Seeing each of the addict’s struggle in their own way and eventually find hope of escaping their addictions make this an uplifting film at the end rather than a depressing one.

Q: Does A Million Little Pieces pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

A: Nope! But mainly because it’s from James’ point of view, making him the focus of every scene.

© Julia Lasker (12/11/19) FF2 Media

Tags: A Million Little Pieces, Addiction, FF2 Media, James Frey

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