Alison Klayman’s “Take Your Pills” (2018)

MY CHAOTIC DAYS at university came before what you might call the Stimulant Revolution, or the saturation of competitive institutions of higher learning with drugs like Ritalin and Concerta and Adderall, although admittedly the anti-narcolepsy drug Modafinil was beginning to do the rounds. Call my contemporaries a group of squares from the past, to quote Stewart Lee, but the prevailing poisons of choice (as far as I could tell, of course) were weed, MDMA and good old-fashioned alcohol, none of which are particularly conducive to intellectual pursuits. But things, it seems, have changed rather dramatically, and off-label stimulants are now a mainstay in colleges and universities on both sides of thae Pond.

In Take Your Pills, Alison Klayman lays the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of hyper-competitive American culture, in which those that don’t pop pills risk falling behind. She does this by examining the history of central nervous stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, both of which are derivatives of methamphetamine usually prescribed to those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and by holding interviews with a cast of characters from various fields and domains. Other than the college students interviewed there is also, for instance, the coder who needs to focus for long periods of time and the former NFL player in need of a competitive edge. Nearly all of those interviewed describe how they perform better in their respective jobs or tasks when they’ve knocked back an Adderall or two, and almost all of them describe rapidly increasing the strength of the pills, and the number they have to take, to accommodate their growing tolerance.


The most interesting insight refers to the work of the cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah, whose extensive tests have yielded very little evidence that Adderall leads to any kind of cognitive improvement whatsoever. She concludes that “lower-performing people actually do improve on the drug, and higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse.”


All this is relatively interesting, but what’s more interesting is how little is said about the negative side-effects of the drug. You’d be led to believe, once you reach the underwhelming conclusion of Take Your Pills, that there aren’t to speak of. Barely a mention is made of any long-term harm to the body outside of a passing and unexplored reference to liver-damage (made, incidentally, by the sole interviewee who was put on Adderall involuntarily as a child and wants to, so to speak, kick the habit). Klayman might at least have mentioned, in the spirit of journalistic balance if nothing else, the potential for hypertension and tachycardia, if not the psychosis and sudden cardiac arrest that long-term users risk. The filmmaker’s failure to offer this side of the story is peculiar, not least because the overall tone of the documentary suggests that the popularity of the supposed cognitive enhancers discussed is generally not a good thing for the person or for the culture. The most interesting insight refers to the work of the cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah, whose extensive tests have yielded very little evidence that Adderall leads to any kind of cognitive improvement whatsoever. She concludes that “lower-performing people actually do improve on the drug, and higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse.” In Take Your Pills there is the suggestion that, just like your garden-variety back-alley speed, Adderall and other stimulants only make you feel as if you are in some way “better”; in reality you are, for the most part, just the same.


When a Silicon Valley coder describes how his Adderall habit aids his concentration, for example, orange text and keyboard symbols dance around on the screen. There are time-lapses and accelerated sequences. All this supposedly gives the layman viewer a sense of what it is like to be “on” Adderall, although you can’t help feeling that Klayman might have coaxed something a little more thoughtful out of her interview subjects and had them do that for her.


Where Take Your Pills does succeed is in its aesthetics, which are frantic and fun. Intermittently but frequently there are cartoon-like animations and flashes and splashes of colour. When a Silicon Valley coder describes how his Adderall habit aids his concentration, for example, orange text and keyboard symbols dance around on the screen. There are time-lapses and accelerated sequences. All this supposedly gives the layman viewer a sense of what it is like to be “on” Adderall, although you can’t help feeling that Klayman might have coaxed something a little more thoughtful out of her interview subjects and had them do that for her.

Take Your Pills, then, is a rather confused sort of film. It somehow manages to deal with its subject only superficially by focusing on the wider societal implications of this “epidemic” while also relying so heavily on the subjective experiences of a handful of interview subjects (and the bland and pointless commentary of various talking-heads) as to make much of the evidence presented seem anecdotal or inconsequential. The tone, meanwhile, is tediously earnest and concerned, and yet very little is offered on the negative impact on the individual of Adderall and similar drugs. What’s more, I have no doubt that there will be parents watching in utter bewilderment that a film that purports to be about Adderall and Ritalin could not give ten minutes over to the conditions for they were designed to treat.

Comments are closed.