Following her dalliance with the Fifty Shades franchise, Sam Taylor-Johnson turns her hand to addiction drama in A Million Little Pieces, starring husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The results, despite some very nice directorial flourishes, are rather disappointing in this rote and reductive portrayal of substance abuse.
The film begins well enough, with Taylor-Johnson’s James throwing himself around at a party, stark naked. It’s deceptively charming, very funny and, given his unlikely top physical condition, an erotic thrill to be had watching him flinging himself around. It’s an interesting and effective choice that gives us a glimpse of the James’ appeal – the unspoken thing about drug is that people do them because they’re fun.
The fun soon gives way to something else, however, when James’ brother (Charlie Hunnam) forces him to check in to rehab. The sequence where James walks down the long corridor for the first time, hallucinating fecal liquid running down the wall, really does show off Taylor-Johnson’s talent for surreal imagery fuelled by a tormented psyche. Later, James dreams of his rehab girlfriend surrounded by ash in an enigmatic, even beautiful image.
It’s just a shame that Taylor-Johnson’s striking imagery rarely coalesces into anything of substance. After James checks in to the facility, he meets the supporting cast of life-affirming characters. We have Juliette Lewis’s motherly counsellor – James may mistrust her at first but guess what, she just may win him round in the end – the tough handlers who were once addicts themselves, and Billy Bob Thornton’s patient patriarch, dishing out just the sort of one-day-at-a-time platitudes that James needs.
Admittedly, the screenplay is decently enough put together and the able supporting cast work with the material they’re given. Less forgivable, however, are the punches the film pulls regarding the proselytising religion of the Alcoholic Anonymous programme – blithely glossed over with some transparent pamphleting – and the way the film treats James’ erstwhile girlfriend Lilly (Odessa Young). It’s here that A Million Little Pieces’ spurious ideology really shows its hand, using the awful things that happen to her as mere stepping-stones on the road to James’ recovery.
James may tell his counsellors that “she’s a human being, not a lesson”, but the film itself treats her as anything but. Ultimately, however, what does for A Million Little Pieces is its treatment of addiction as an obstacle to be overcome, instead of a condition to managed throughout life. Issues as complex as this have little need for such reductive, simplistic narratives.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell