Always well meaning but successful only in spurts, the teen mental-illness drama “Words on Bathroom Walls,” opening in theaters today, shares its own sense of schizophrenia with its protagonist.
“At first they thought there was something wrong with my eyes,” says Adam (Charlie Plummer), in the film’s opening line, setting in motion his life’s struggle to contain an incurable condition that results in full-blown visual and auditory hallucinations. A talented chef with aspirations for culinary school and a career in the restaurant business, Adam is only comfortable with a spice rack and a cutting board; outside of his passion, his schizophrenia too often takes hold, leading to an accident in chemistry class and his expulsion from public high school—but tempered by a love interest in Maya (Taylor Russell), a kindred valedictorian at his strict new Catholic school, to whom he is deathly afraid of revealing his condition.
Recognizing, perhaps, that depicting schizophrenic breakdowns in their rawest, most authentic form would be closer to horror movie than young-adult bildungsroman, director Thor Freudenthal, working from Julia Walton’s novel, initially settles on tone-deaf comedy. Adam’s brain manifests a rogue’s gallery of recurring characters: a burly bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a New Age hippie (AnnaSophia Robb) and a wisecracking wingman (Devon Bostwick), all of whom are eager to offer love advice, tarot readings and, if needed, physical protection. I can picture this device working in novel form, but Freudenthal’s treatment risks glamorizing mental illness: There are times when Adam’s schizophrenia seems almost cute, and certainly quirky, suggesting the intersection of a ‘90s comedy and a John Green emo-romance.
The stock supporting characters—the humorless habit-wearing schoolmarm (Beth Grant) and Adam’s callous stepfather (Walton Goggins)—rely on the familiar over the revelatory. And when Adam discovers that Maya, too, is hiding a secret, there would be a certain elegance to it if it didn’t feel so schematic.
And yet, “Words on Bathroom Walls” is a more uncompromising picture than it initially seems, if the spectator is patient enough. Far more convincing than Adam’s trio of recurring “helpers” is the metastasizing blackness, bowel-shaking shudders and taunting baritone that bombard Adam’s consciousness when his disease is at its most destructive. And the movie’s depiction of the lose-lose reality of the schizophrenia sufferer—the terrors of an unchecked illness versus the ghastly side effects of prescription meds—is true and heartbreaking.
Its dialogue, by Nick Naveda, feels plausible enough, if a bit shopworn in its readiness to show off the writer’s knowledge of Gen-Z vocabulary (“ghosting,” “dumpster fire,” “side hustle,” “triggered,” et al). Freudenthal’s direction is both gimmicky and anonymous, with entire sequences edited like trailers and music videos; anybody who’s audited an entry-level film class will see through his deployment of canted angles when the going gets tough.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” will certainly find an audience that will be deeply moved. But it’s unlikely to transcend the teen-movie ghetto in the manner of this summer’s smart and touching “The Half of It.”
“Words on Bathroom Walls” opens today at theaters including the Regal Magnolia Place 16 in Coral Springs, Regal Sawgrass 23 in Sunrise, and AMC Coral Ridge 10 in Fort Lauderdale, and more.