"The Adderall Diaries" is a complex, absorbing, at times profound look at how we choose to remember our past. What the script, adapted by director Pamela Romanowsky from the memoir by Stephen Elliott, lacks in cohesion and practicality it makes up for with its risky mélange of ideas, emotions and perspectives.
The film's Stephen Elliott (James Franco) is a notable if self-destructive New York author with a raft of inner demons, most of which have been ascribed — both personally and in print — to his unstable, abusive father, Neil (Ed Harris), who terrorized him as a child. As an adult, the attractive, charismatic Stephen suffers from drug addiction, a dark pursuit of pain and pleasure, and now, a perhaps dubious case of writer's block.
The author's troubles double, however, when the estranged Neil, said to be dead in Stephen's memoir, shows up at a bookstore reading very much alive and publicly brands his son a fraud. This revelation not only reopens a festering filial wound for Stephen but instantly sends his career into a James Frey-like tailspin, to the consternation of his hard-working editor (Cynthia Nixon).
Meanwhile, Stephen has become obsessed with an investigation involving a family man (Christian Slater, quite good) who may or may not have murdered his missing wife. Stirred by apparent parallels to his own fraught past, Stephen begins to follow the high-profile case, through which he meets a sexy New York Times reporter, Lana (Amber Heard), who's covering the story.
A complicated romance develops between Stephen and Lana that reveals and tests Stephen's diciest impulses. As for Neil, he has his own agenda that keeps him in front of his bitter son. This forces Stephen to come to terms with his lifelong enemy, rethink his deeply ingrained memories and consider the fine line between victim and villain.
Romanowsky, with strong assists from cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung and editor Marc Vives, vividly shuttles between Stephen's past and present, reflecting his swirling mental states, sex-and-drug-induced manias and painful recollections. The result, thanks also to lived-in turns by Franco and Harris, is bold, provocative and literary, even if the real-life Elliott has called out the film for playing fast and loose with his source material.
'The Adderall Diaries'
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout, drug use, sexuality, and some aberrant and disturbing content
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica