Teenage romances are a dime a dozen, but “Words on Bathroom Walls” takes the genre and gives it a smart, insightful spin. Nothing about this story is of the cookie-cutter variety, and it’s one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) is a typical high schooler who has big dreams of becoming a chef. He started cooking when his dad walked out on his mom (Molly Parker), and now spending time in the kitchen has become a passion. With plans to go to culinary school after graduation, the future looks bright — until Adam has a frightening meltdown in the science lab, causing him to be expelled halfway through his senior year.
Trying to understand what happened, a doctor diagnoses him with schizophrenia, which causes unrelenting bullying by his peers. Forced to find a new school, Adam enrolls in a private Catholic academy where he can start over with a clean slate — as long as he takes his medication and keeps his mental illness a secret. It’s here that he meets the outspoken and highly intelligent Maya (Taylor Russell), a hardworking and kind soul who comforts and inspires Adam. The two quickly fall in love.
The narrative is well told both visually (by director Thor Freudenthal) and through the screenplay, which was adapted by Nick Naveda from Julia Walton‘s novel. Adam’s schizophrenic episodes are creatively filmed in a way that makes you understand what it must be like to be inside the head of a young person living with a serious mental illness. He’s visited by imaginary friends and demons who encourage him to behave in a certain way. It’s an effective and eye-opening look at a teenager who is afraid he will be defined by his illness, but is determined not to be.
At several interludes during the film, Adam addresses the audience directly in informal, plain-talk sessions about his problems. It feels very real and helps present the ominous themes in a manner that gently educates. This movie has something important to say, and it delicately balances style with substance in a creative way. Freudenthal tells Adam’s story with humor and respect, and is very careful not to exploit the character or his diagnosis.
Russell and Plummer have a terrific chemistry, making it hard not to like their characters. Adam is so awkward and charming, and Maya is so diligent and determined, that I found myself rooting for the two from the start. They are teens behaving like they would in real life and speaking with an age-appropriate vocabulary, which adds to the authenticity of the story. The concerned and caring adults (including mom’s new boyfriend (Walton Goggins)) aren’t thinly-written caricatures either, providing a grounded support system for a kid who really needs some stability in his life.
The film doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, either. Some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are when Adam is forced to weigh the benefits of taking medication versus the debilitating side effects that ruin much of what he loves about life (one of his pills strips him of his ability to taste food, but refusing to take a daily handful of pharmaceuticals cause dangerous hallucinations that could lead to self harm). It’s a sobering glimpse into the mind of a person with both medicated and untreated schizophrenia, and there are no easy answers.
The best way to destigmatize mental illness is to talk about it openly, and “Words on Bathroom Walls” is an earnest exercise in starting the uncomfortable conversation. It’s entertaining too, which makes it all the more effective. While the film gets a little corny towards the finale, the end result is a heartfelt message that kindness, love, and familial support can help a person live with instead of suffer from mental illness. The conclusion is a positive, hopeful message that nobody has to go through life’s challenges alone.
By: Louisa Moore