Pamela Romanowsky’s solo directorial debut after collaborating with James Franco and a stable of student filmmakers to make The Color of Time, The Adderall Diaries (based off Stephen Elliott’s memoir) details the trial of Linux guru Hans Reiser (Christian Slater) for the murder of his wife.
Franco, playing Elliott living in the tumultuous afterglow of his first book’s success, weaves a tale of abuse and loss without searching for pity. His is a matter-of-factness that disguises pain with emotional immaturity. His mother has died of cancer and his father beat him until he became a ward of the state, bouncing from group homes to homelessness. A lilting indie-synth score gives the opening montage’s cancer, adultery and abuse a candy coating culminating in the dramatic undercut reveal when his father (Ed Harris), supposedly dead, per Elliott’s creatively written book, crashes his publisher’s gala.
Aside from this presumably career-shattering revelation (it doesn’t really affect his career), the film doesn’t shy away from its alleged source, showing him writing — nothing more exciting than words appearing on a blank screen — intercut with the bad decisions of his youth.
The film huffs and puffs its way to the finish line like a series of montages without drama or conflict. The trouble with watching someone fail to write is that we are sentenced to their procrastination through no fault of our own. Their drug abuse can be seen as either the last desperate move of a victim or the lazy flailings of someone in over their head. The difference is all in the direction. In The Adderall Diaries, we get the latter. Franco can only do what he’s told. He does the drugs, writes the silly index card notes with his publisher’s name on them (“Penguin!!!!”), and relives his flashbacked teenage delinquencies. Without artistry, like match-cuts from particular moments of adolescent suffering and its repercussions, we get disconnected images that fail to impact.
Aside from this, we get a meet-cute with an invented New York Times reporter (Amber Heard) at Reiser’s trial, which Elliott has decided to chronicle, but it isn’t quite satisfying. Their relationship alternates between voyeurism into her life (What did your stepdad do to you?), projecting his own “dads are bad” thesis on trauma into the world and “I think you’re perfect; I wouldn’t want you any other way.”
They’re both motorcycle-riding badasses, which is intended to represent a bad-boy persona that the formerly homeless runaway author simply doesn’t embody so stereotypically.
The author has written a response to the film, saying that its fidelity to both his life and his published work is tenuous. Did a New York Times reporter in her mid-20s really exist and date Elliott? This doesn’t matter so much for perfect word-to-screen adaptation but for artistic and thematic believability.
In making a story about abuse, sadness and dependence, Romanowsky ironically focused on the mixed truths and realities that infect our different perspectives. Memories are inconsistent but not so inconsistent that they forget about the real person behind the story. Desperation should be felt in these movies — not the way we might feel desperate, like when losing a love, but how the character might feel desperate, like being utterly alone, trapped with his past.
Print headline: Aimless stimulant, Pamela Romanowsky’s The Adderall Diaries follows the tumultuous experiences of author Stephen Elliott.