James Franco is no stranger to playing troubled souls. Lately, it seems he prefers to play them in troubled films, too. Pamela Romanowsky’s “The Adderall Diaries,” adapted from the best-selling memoir by Stephen Elliott, is a valiant but unsuccessful effort in genre-bending. Much like its protagonist, the film suffers from an identity crisis.
“We’re all victims of our fathers,” writes a scruffy and tattooed Stephen Elliott (Franco). He’s sitting pretty at the top of newfound literary success, having published a critically-acclaimed memoir about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his sadistic father (Ed Harris). Up next is a series of publishing deals that promise more money and fame, but Elliott is more interested in a high-profile murder trial he sees on the news. He latches on to the story, convinced this will rescue him from writer’s block. (“It’ll be my ‘In Cold Blood,’ he says to his editor.)
At the first court proceeding, Elliott’s interest changes course again, this time in favor of a hot New York Times reporter named Lana (Amber Heard). The two bond over shared a passion for motorcycles and memories from their rebellious youths. Their lovers’ bliss is punctuated, however, by a not-quite-dead ghost from Elliott’s past. Elliott’s father, whom he claimed was dead in his memoir, shows up uninvited to a fancy book reading and declares the memoir to be mostly fabricated. “You’re a fucking coward and you always have been,” father yells to son in front of the crowd. Just like that, Elliott’s livelihood is called into question.
Stephen Elliott’s book was praised for its ability to straddle the true-crime, memoir, and thriller genres even as it breathed new life into all three, but Romanowsky would have been better off just picking one. Her efforts to marry genres result in a tonally confused movie that lacks the bravado and grit of its source material. Slow-motion flashbacks dispersed throughout the film might be more appropriate in a milder family drama; here, they lend the film a cloying quality that undermines the rawness of the death, sex, and self-destruction rampant in the film.
Furthermore, the true-crime narrative is much too thin. Christian Slater’s plot serves merely as a device to further Elliott’s self-revelations. Slater’s character remains as two-dimensional as the newspaper headlines, a conspicuous missed opportunity.
Perhaps the most telling moments of tonal confusion occur when Romanowsky attempts to depict Elliott’s sadomasochistic tendencies. The sexual masochism plays as if for shock value; it’s jarring and disrupts the film’s momentum with unfortunate invocations of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” In one scene, Elliott asks Lana to choke him during sex, egging her on by preying on buried anger directed toward her sexually abusive stepfather. Lana nearly chokes him to death, but when Elliott regains conciousness, he utters, “I love you.” This elicited unanimous nervous laughter from the opening night audience, laying bare the tonal problems that plague the movie.
But “The Adderall Diaries” is certainly not wanting for good performances. The ever-committed Franco brings gristle to his character and shines most brightly in suspenseful confrontations with Harris, whose impetuous character gives Franco much to work with. Harris is strong in his own right, evoking enmity and tenderness in a single breath. And though Heard is grievously miscast in a role that demands less ingenue and more vulnerability, she displays much potential and has succeeded in a bid to be taken more seriously.
The film arrives at its most authentic turn with the final act when Elliott is forced to examine his representations of reality. Friends, family, and ex-lovers tell him in several different ways that he has “a convenient way of remembering things,” and truths that were taken for granted begin to emerge with different—more plausible—interpretations. As Elliott’s integrity as a narrator is challenged, we start investing in an effort to put the pieces together. This is when the film finally clicks. Elliott’s character is much more interesting in light of these contradictions: He exalts self-reflection and honesty, but we come to see that his own memories may be defensive fantasy. As Elliott’s self-discovery reveals, the inherent value of memory isn’t that it reaffirms our sense of identity; it’s that it shows us the characters we’re capable of playing on other peoples’ stages. If anything, “The Adderall Diaries” is worth seeing for the ways it challenges the audience to examine and take responsibility for their own personal narratives.
“The Adderall Diaries” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.