Stephen Elliott (James Franco) and Neil Elliott (Ed Harris) in "The Adderall Diaries." Photo: Anna Kooris/TFF.

Stephen Elliott (James Franco) and Neil Elliott (Ed Harris) in “The Adderall Diaries.” Photo: Anna Kooris/TFF.

Making a film about someone else’s diaries — in this case, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir by Stephen Elliott — is a tricky proposition at best. It poses the question, should the director — the first-time-out filmmaker Pamela Romanowsky — concentrate on a father-son conflict worthy of the likes of dramatist Eugene O’Neill, and perhaps the drug-induced writer’s block of her main character and the murder trial he’s obsessed with, or the steamy sadomasochistic relationship he forms with a young female journalist? Needless to say, it’s a brave undertaking and she almost made it.

Where this narrative entry in the current Tribeca Film Festival lineup works best is in the performances Romanowsky is able to elicit from her cast. James Franco as Stephen Elliott, the troubled writer of the real-life memoir, does his level best to bring the grit and passion inherent in his character to life. He swaggers, shaggy-curled, through every scene, racing through the nightscape of Manhattan on his motorcycle with the confidence of a young Marlon Brando. We have to believe — amphetamine addiction or not — he is capable of stringing along his editor, his best friend, and his beautiful and smart girlfriend beyond any rational explanation. And he is, up to a point.

If only Ed Harris, as the supposedly dead father, Neil, of our hero, hadn’t shown up at Stephen’s showy book event to spill the beans. But he does, and as wasted as he appears, it’s a powerful indictment he makes against his son’s falsifying. Throughout the rest of the film, no matter how hard Stephen may try through a number of blurry flashbacks to make us believe his memories of abuse are the correct ones, it is Neil who wins out. And it’s this guessing game about whose memories are the ones to be trusted that gives the film its grist. Harris is a wonderful actor, one capable of showing a naked vulnerability in the midst of his anger that puts us in thrall.

But screenwriter/director Romanowsky is determined to dress up her script with a jumble of scenes about a San Francisco murder trial that Stephen follows. For whatever reasons, this crime about a computer programmer accused of murdering his wife seems to be the subject that will help to hotwire the young writer’s flagging career and his own separate memories as well. Unfortunately, the trial as presented doesn’t seem to strengthen the script or Stephen’s muddled memory either. Christian Slater, though a very competent actor, is given too thin a role as the convicted murderer to give more focus to the story.

Another supporting performance worth mentioning is that of Stephen’s longtime editor Jen, played by the talented Cynthia Nixon. She can always be relied upon to bring in a believable performance, and here her portrayal of a woman led almost to the breaking point over a client hell-bent on destroying himself is no exception.

A subplot which seems both grim and at times gratuitous to the storyline is the sadomasochistic underpinnings in Stephen’s life. There are a few redemptive moments when Stephen is pursuing Lana, a New York Times journalist he meets at the courthouse, and we feel the obvious attraction between them before things go sour. Amber Heard is altogether winsome and intelligent as the love interest, but almost too intelligent for us to believe she would put up with Stephen’s obsessions for very long. When he coerces her into almost choking him to death during sex, we can feel a sense of relief when she rejects him.

Heard is a young actress (not unlike Kristen Stewart, familiar as Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga, and more recently, the complicated young daughter in Still Alice) capable of conveying emotion and plot with a random gesture or facial expression, a still and total concentration. Coupled with a kind of throwaway nod to her natural unaffected beauty, she is someone to watch. She’s bound to be a double-threat talent, as she is also starring at the TFF with Christopher Walken in When I Live My Life Over Again as a would-be singer-songwriter.

As mentioned earlier, the heart of this film is in Stephen’s struggle to confront his memories. At times, his inability to face them — obviously, choosing instead to drown them out with drug addiction or random sexual encounters — can be exhaustive not only to himself and others, but to an audience as well. He is accused of having “a convenient way of remembering things.” He wonders, “what roles have I played in someone else’s narrative?” His only hope of salvation seems to lie in facing the truth as someone else — in this case, his father — presents it. And that father is a broken man, but one still capable of grasping the importance of acceptance for a past that cannot be changed.

Finally, if memories are unreliable, whose memories can we believe? Even Stephen’s father says at one point, “We were all storytellers.” There are no easy resolutions to be found here. Stephen’s voiceover narrator confesses that he wants to “cast [himself] as someone else this time, someone better.” We can be forgiven for having doubts about his success for this is no coming-of-age story, and even with James Franco’s easy appeal, Stephen is no wide-eyed young buck.

Romanowsky has studied behavioral psychology as well as documentary filmmaking with Barbara Kopple. It’s easy to understand why a story like The Adderall Diaries would hold such a strong appeal for this young director. But there remains the challenge of translating such confessional literature to film. Difficult choices must be made, often when to cut and where to put the focus in particular. The cinematography by Bruce Thierry Cheung can hardly be faulted. His roaming lens, particularly of nighttime Manhattan, is beautifully conveyed.

If it’s difficult to see the forest for all the trees in Romanowsky’s own story lens, there are still rewards to be had. And there’s the likelihood that this is one filmmaker that will continue to refine and define her craft.

Rating: B

“The Adderall Diaries,” which runs at 90-minutes, is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 25 and Sunday, April 26. For information about location and tickets, you can visit the TFF’s official Web site by clicking here. The film had its world premiere on April 16.