“We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.”
Director Pamela Romanowsky uses that quote from writer Stephen Elliott to introduce her scattered and jarring feature “The Adderall Diaries,” a movie based on Elliott’s book of the same name.
Elliott’s early years are told in a rapid-fire flashback sequence of nostalgic and turbulent scenes that lead to and inform his literary success. We see Elliott (James Franco, who produced the film) in his New York City loft attempting to write the follow-up work to the celebrated memoir that has made him one of the troubled darlings of the literary world. It becomes apparent from the opening quote, the discombobulated flashback and Elliott’s manipulation of words on the page that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator.
That unreliability crystalizes when Elliott’s father (a menacing Ed Harris) appears (or does he?) at a tony book reading to reveal his son’s literary achievement as fraudulent. Elliott’s story, built in part on the abuse of his monstrous father, claimed the father had died. When that part of the story is revealed as a lie, Elliott’s life and the film both crack open.
After witnessing stories of a news-hogging murder involving a wealthy businessman (Christian Slater) accused of killing his wife, Elliott gets drawn to the trial. The murder trial gives Elliott some allegorical insight into the sins of his own father, and reveals the complications of victimhood, but the parallel storyline never gains emotional momentum or makes much sense.
What it does is introduce Elliott to New York Times crime reporter Lana (Austin native Amber Heard), a sultry, motorcycle loving muse. But, is she real? If she is, she’s the most casually dressed reporter to ever cover a criminal case for a major daily newspaper. And, to that end, she seems to almost never do any writing or spend any time at the office.
But Elliott does find in Lana a kindred spirit, one with a shared history of drug use and one with scars of her own. Lana tends to wear her scars on the inside, however, while Elliott perpetually peels back his scabs in a self-immolating way that perpetuates his victimhood and destroys his personal relationships.
When his father attempts to reinsert himself into Elliott’s life, it becomes clear that the troubled writer’s account of his life is one he has created to suit the narrative he needs to tell himself about his own psyche. He retreats to drugs, though it is unclear exactly when his troubles with drugs escalated and why, and Franco plays the frenzied writer a palpable sense of dread, paranoia and excitement.
Romanowsky has trouble keeping all of the narrative thread together – the criminal trial fades and returns, Lana seemingly disappears after a brief argument, and another storyline about Elliott and a childhood friend is never given enough flesh to feel visceral – but Franco propels the story with his typical captivating charisma.
“The Adderall Diaries” is an interesting examination of how we construct memories and how we allowed the crimes perpetrated on us in our youth to shape or break us, but the frenetic tone and uneven storytelling feels more like an outline for a film than a finished product.