You may be familiar with James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces and the controversy that surrounded it. But director and co-writer Sam Taylor-Johnson said in an interview with The Guardian that for her film adaptation, she focused solely on the semi-autographical novel and none of its aftermath. Her husband and co-writer Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars in the film as James Frey. The plot follows his struggle to recover from drug and alcohol addiction while in a rehabilitation center. There, James meets and is mentored by Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), a fellow recovering addict. He also falls for another resident of the facility named Lilly (Odessa Young), even though fraternization between them is forbidden. Here’s our take on how the film’s lead actors fared with their performances.
While Taylor-Johnson is well-known for his comedy chops as the titular character in Kick-Ass and Kick-Ass 2, he is no stranger to heavy drama, as evidenced by his disturbing role in Nocturnal Animals. Taylor-Johnson uses his skill with the latter genre for A Million Little Pieces. Since pain and comedy are so often intertwined, the film does include some lighter moments, but they mostly come from other characters. Taylor-Johnson’s role is focused on helming the heavy narrative of a 23-year-old addict who has to choose between dealing with his past and dropping his habit or letting it take him to an early grave.
Taylor-Johnson fearlessly embraces the challenge of portraying such a troubled character, whom we meet as he dances naked around a party. Dropping his pants for the scene and committing to the full-frontal nudity seems symbolic of Taylor-Johnson’s dedication to shedding any inhibitions he may have had as an actor and giving viewers an exposed, vulnerable window into the psyche of James. The thespian’s courage pays off, and we are left with a visceral exploration of James’ quest for sobriety. His ability to create chemistry with his co-stars — whether it be romantic or brotherly — contributes to the cinematic magic of suspending disbelief. And the actor’s unique physicalization of James’ urges and desires further entices the audience to get lost in his world. Admittedly, there are a few moments of heavy drama in which Taylor-Johnson’s performance doesn’t quite ring true. But they are lost in an overall dynamic performance. And considering the lack of takes likely afforded to a 20-day shoot, Taylor-Johnson’s masterful work in the film is even more impressive.
Thornton keeps Leonard from becoming larger than life but still creates a colorful character. Leonard has his own traumatic past, but the veteran member of the rehabilitation center provides guidance to his fellow residents. He takes James under his wing, and this role of caring mentor is one of Thornton’s most endearing ones to date. Like many of Thornton’s characters, Leonard is a little rough around the edges, but he also happens to have a heart of gold. Leonard doggedly persists in helping James, even when his assistance is unappreciated. The thespian delivers a lot of the film’s comedic lines, and he nails them while keeping everything in line with the film’s tone. It’s no small task, and Thornton’s ease and confidence in the role reflects his successful body of work and his many years in the industry.
Young might not have the name recognition of Thornton or Taylor-Johnson just yet, but based on her performance in A Million Little Pieces, this young actor is one to watch. Young’s portrayal of Lilly is raw and volatile. The character’s addiction involves prostituting herself for drugs, but Young infuses in her a certain innocence that is unexpected and deeply touching. It’s brilliant, well-executed character work that allows viewers to see her as a person who is desperately seeking love and fulfillment. The script requires Young to travel between emotional peaks and valleys on the flip of a dime, and she effortlessly delivers. The actor gives a consistently interesting and authentic performance throughout the film that will mesmerize viewers and stay with them long after the end credits roll.
Taylor-Johnson, Thornton, and Young are surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Charlie Hunnam is a nice fit for the role of James’ caring older brother, Juliette Lewis plays the resident therapist at the treatment facility, and Giovanni Ribisi gives a memorable performance as John, a self-described “sexual ninja” who resides at the center. You can catch all of their performances when A Million Little Pieces is released in the United States. on December 6.