‘Words on Bathroom Walls’ Review
Very little outside ‘the norm’ is required for teenagers to ostracize one of their own. Sometimes it’s a haircut or a brand of shoes. But when it’s a mental illness, the tribe can be merciless. Director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 2010) takes on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel Words on Bathroom Walls, with a screenplay from Nick Naveda. The film features two rising young stars and addresses some of the challenges brought on by the uncertainties associated with a mental illness.
Charlie Plummer (so terrific in Lean on Pete, 2018) stars as Adam, a high school senior who has dealt with the challenges of undiagnosed mental health issues since he was quite young. His father abandoned the family years ago, and Adam’s devoted mother (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) is not only patient and loving, but also committed to researching any possible treatment that would lead Adam to a better life. On the other hand, Adam and his mother’s new live-in lover Paul (Walton Goggins) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on things, leading to more anxiety for Adam.
In an interesting and unique approach, director Freudenthal allows us to not only hear the voices Adam hears, but also see the hallucinations and visions he sees – three of whom are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, The Way, Way Back), a sweet, hippie-ish optimist; The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping, bat-swinging he-man; and Joaquin (Devon Bostick), an inappropriately horny “best friend from a 90’s move.” On top of that, there is a black mist that periodically manifests, enveloping Adam, bringing on crippling fear and isolation. After a years-long stream of drug therapy, Adam is pronounced “treatment-resistant” and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Adam’s only mind-calming escape is when he’s cooking. His goal is to attend culinary school after graduation.
One day, Adam has a psychotic break during Chemistry class. He gets expelled, which jeopardizes his culinary school dream. His mother gets him admitted to a Catholic School run by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) at the same time he is accepted into an experimental drug trial. He’s allowed to stay in school as long as he takes his meds and maintains his grades.
It’s here where he meets the dynamic Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves). Maya is smart and ambitious and proud, and the two quickly form a bond – an interesting bond between two smart high school kids carrying their own burdens and holding their own secrets. Sister Catherine is balancing the specific needs of Adam with her responsibility to the school, and then there is also prom and graduation to deal with. With the new drug, the voices and visions disappear, but Adam has some issues with the side effects. A desperate plea for help from Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), the school priest, provides a boost as Adam tells him, “It’s nice to be listened to and not just observed.” That line provides significant insight into what it’s like to have this affliction, and that’s really where the movie excels…putting us in the shoes of a schizophrenic and allowing us to experience the good and bad moments. What can Adam trust? His eyes? His ears? His mind?
Adam and Maya are both trying to figure out who they are, at the same time learning what it really means to love someone. Adam refers to his illness as his “burgeoning insanity,” and in fact, schizophrenia does have a history of accelerating over time once it strikes a young person. The movie succeeds in taking away some of the mystique of mental illness, by making it approachable and something we want to better understand. There is a visual reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that might be a bit too “nail on the head,” but Freudenthal’s movie is profound and features two very talented young actors. The humanity beneath the surface of those that society would rather pretend don’t exist is effectively compared to those stricken with cancer…those we would do anything for. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled Chemical Hearts, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students…but quite a treat.