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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: A Million Little Pieces – Review

Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018
Toronto International Film Festival 2018


Release Date: 10 September 2018 (CA)
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Sam Taylor-Johnson - Aaron Taylor-Johnson - [Based on the book by James Frey]
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson - Charlie Hunnam - Billy Bob Thornton



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Posted September 16, 2018 by

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Toronto International Film Festival 2018: A Million Little Pieces – Review

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s latest feature film, A Million Little Pieces, begins with a Mark Twain quote:

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life… Some of which actually happened”

For those who are aware of the subject-matter and source material of this film, the quote may elicit a little chuckle. For the uninitiated, this quote will help you make it through the film. 

As per several other Toronto International Film Festival entries this year, A Million Little Pieces deals with addiction. James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a 23-year-old alcoholic crack addict. When, after a particularly disastrous binge, he finds himself on a plane with no idea of his destination or how he got there, he is checked into a rehabilitation clinic by his long-suffering brother, Bob (Charlie Hunnam). 

The film, based on Frey’s controversial 2003 ‘memoir’, details the protagonist’s stay at the facility, the curious characters he meets and the girl he falls in love with. Juxtaposed with the film’s raw scenes of recovery are cinematic allusions to Frey’s drug-addled hallucinations. What is missing from it all is any real portrayal of the rest of the characters. 

The Taylor-Johnson husband and wife duo bring this film to life, but Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction, so perfectly nuanced in Nowhere Boy, seems solely focused on the talents and movements of her other half. Though Aaron is supposed to be front and centre in this film, the film lacks a meaningful story because of its singular focus. 

Irrespective of whether the camera is capturing Aaron as he portrays Frey at the depths of his recovery or when it lovingly caresses his maniacal dancing, the person behind the visage is never discovered. It could be down to the source material, or the inexperience of Aaron Taylor-Johnson teaming up with his wife to write the film’s script. There are times when Aaron transforms into his character, other times when he seems to be trying hard to convert the words of his script into an authentic performance. 

Aaron’s Frey writhes and fidgets through his stint at rehab, yet the other actors around him remain perfectly calm and still, like each and every single character is little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Friend inserted in the narrative for the singular purpose of either hindering or helping Frey through his journey. Much of the character development is left up to dialogue, but without action it just feels like a lot of words and no substance. It’s no wonder then that actors like Hunnam, Billy Bob Thornton and Juliette Lewis are little more than talking statues. They deserved more screen time and more development in conjunction with Aaron’s. 

The film is overly dramatic, as expected, but Taylor-Johnson has always had a propensity for leveraging the cinematic medium to the max in her directing. Unfortunately for this film, the drama works against its intention of creating a believable journey through addiction. Assuming that is what the intent was in the first place. There seems to be no irony in recreating the outlandish claims of James Frey’s memoir. As stellar as some of Aaron’s performance is, the film undoes its own good work by plodding through plot points and not focusing on characterization. 

One comes away from this film with no unique understanding of the trials of rehabilitation, nor any sense of what the purpose of this film really was. There is no USP to this film, just an adaptation that tries too hard. Some of Taylor-Johnson’s framing is stunning – for example, a million little pieces of ash cover Aaron as he tries to wash away a recent encounter with drugs. But she misses other cues that would have benefited the film much more. 

Early in the film, as Frey reluctantly enters the facility, in his hallucinations he sees the walls dripping with sewage which he then slips and slides in. The scene immediately cuts to the film’s title with a muscled arm (that we must assume is supposed to belong to Aaron) reaching out to a million pieces of blocks falling like rain. What would have worked much better would have been for the million blocks to be part of the hallucination, thereby merging the two shots instead of unnecessarily conjoining them. 

The film is full of these troublesome techniques that eventually just bring down the quality of the experience. Even the soundtrack is numbingly on-the-nose  (REM’s Everybody Hurts during a character’s fearful farewell from the facility). There is precious little that is refreshing about this film. 

The audience deserved either a clever portrait of the original author’s deception, or a meaningful examination of recovery. We get neither from this film, which is extremely disappointing. This cast and crew should have created something so much more memorable but what we get is a missed opportunity.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
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