Review: A Million Little Pieces an 'impressive feat of directorial will and ingenuity'

Aaron Taylor-Johnson faces the two-headed demon of drug and alcohol dependency in the film adaptation of A Million Little Pieces

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Frey in A Million Little Pieces
Damon Smith

IN JANUARY 2006, Oprah Winfrey memorably invited author James Frey on to her daytime TV talk show to publicly castigate him about the veracity of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

She had endorsed the harrowing account of addiction as an Oprah's Book Club selection in September the previous year, a validation which propelled the paperback on to the bestsellers list.

When the credibility of his written testimony was challenged by the media, Winfrey defended Frey against detractors until it became clear that he had employed artistic licence to create dramatic arcs in his recollections.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson contemplated incorporating audio from the Winfrey interview at the beginning of her ambitious film, co-written by her husband and lead actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Wisely, she distances herself from the controversy by taking her own artistic liberties to visualise the book's first-person stream of consciousness.

Some of these bold choices pay off - the opening image of James dancing naked around a flat establishes the grim, nihilistic tone and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's unwavering commitment to the role.

A nightmarish root canal procedure without anaesthetic, which was a centrepiece of the book, is terrifying when we can hear the piercing scream of the dentist's drill as it burrows into infected teeth.

Stylistic flourishes abound but Frey's internal conflict and the demons which drive him to self-destruct in a fug of booze and crack are frequently lost in the melee.

Beautiful Boy and Ben Is Back from earlier this year were more conventional in their approach to depicting drug dependency and its aftermath, and the emotional pay-off in both pictures was arguably more satisfying.

James (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) agrees to check into a six-week rehabilitation programme at the behest of his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam).

He must bare his soul in group therapy sessions and avoid contact with female patients or risk expulsion.

Lingering glances across the cafeteria from Lilly (Odessa Young) test James's resolve as he clashes with clarinet-playing roommate Miles Davis (Charles Parnell) and rejects the touchy-feely approach of staff psychologist Joanne (Juliette Lewis).

"I'm not an addict," he reiterates.

Confrontations with fellow abusers John (Giovanni Ribisi) and Roy (David Dastmalchian) are tempered by a touching bond with resident sage Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), who takes his sartorial lead from Elvis Presley with a jumpsuit and oversized sunglasses.

Shot in just 20 days on a tight budget, A Million Little Pieces is an impressive feat of directorial will and ingenuity, anchored by Aaron Taylor-Johnson's fearless lead performance.

Thornton snaffles the lion's share of one-liners and Ribisi careens between predatory and pathetic in a memorable shower scene.

Young invests her former prostitute with touching vulnerability.

An erotically charged hallway dance with her leading man is a glorious invention for the screen.

Rating: 6/10

Released: August 30

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (15, 113 mins) Drama/Romance. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Odessa Young, Giovanni Ribisi, David Dastmalchian, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis, Charles Parnell. Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson.

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