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Director Thor Freudenthal was reviewing advance copies of books two years ago when he found one that immediately “stood out.” The book was author Julia Walton’s soon-to-be published young adult novel Words on Bathroom Walls (Random House), a story centered on a teenager named Adam coming to terms with his schizophrenia diagnosis.
“I read it and instantly fell in love with it,” Freudenthal tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that he read Walton’s book “in one sitting.”
As Adam details his journey from being diagnosed to finding treatment while enduring the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in high school, Freudenthal realized that the story offered an “opportunity for a very different kind of representation of mental illness with schizophrenia.”
“We could create a person onscreen that was neither a mad genius nor a violent criminal, [but] who a lot of people could even see themselves in the way I did when I read the book,” he tells THR. “I loved that there was a sort of tender, compassionate, funny tone where Adam gets at some of the really tough issues with self-deprecating humor which really functions as a weapon of sorts against his pain.”
Walton’s book is formulated around journal entries written from Adam. The director attributes the character’s unique voice and “how he deals with this rollercoaster” as the reason for wanting to bring Walton’s story to life. The book is also not Freudenthal’s first foray into the YA genre, as his previous works include helming The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and episodes of the series The Tick.
“What I’m interested in is mostly an emotional angle or a unique character,” he explains. “That age group [YA] is on sort of the precipice of figuring themselves out of learning to accept who they are… YA I think offers that view to somebody’s life where everything is open, everything’s a question. That’s what interests me about that age group.”
After joining forces with screenwriter Nick Naveda — Naveda had penned and directed the indie feature Say You Will — who, Freudenthal says also “loved” the book, Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon of LD Entertainment, whose previous credits include the adventure thriller The Grey and biopic Jackie, came on board to produce the film.
“I think it took less than a year to actually be on the set and start the movie. So that was, that was a quick turnaround,” Freudenthal says.
Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World) stars as protagonist Adam, who delivers both comedic charm and emotional monologues as he endures psychotic episodes. Throughout the film, Plummer’s Adam narrates his journey by speaking with a therapist and, at times, with the audience. Centralizing the story on Adam’s voice alone was the “unique element” Freudenthal and Naveda loved from Walton’s story that they hoped to keep in their film adaptation.
“He attends therapy sessions but they become the narrative frame of the film in that Adam is able to guide us through his own story,” Freudenthal explains, adding that the “juxtaposition” of Adam’s exterior versus interior thoughts “offered a lot of great editing choices and tonal shift.”
Throughout the film, viewers are able to watch Adam’s dream of attending culinary school slip away after being expelled in the middle of his senior year. As he begins testing an experimental new drug, Adam’s mom (Molly Parker) and stepdad (Walton Goggins) enroll him in Catholic school. It is there where he befriends classmate Maya (Taylor Russell) and soon experiences a sense of hope and belonging for the first time. But things take a turn when he continues to experience visual and auditory hallucinations of imaginary characters including a free spirit (AnnaSophia Robb), a bat-wielding macho man (Lobo Sebastian) and a flirtatious young man (Devon Bostick). Andy Garcia also stars in the film as Father Patrick.
While adapting Walton’s pages to screen, Freudenthal was well aware of the sensitivity surrounding the topic of conveying a mental illness to a young audience. The director read a myriad of books including I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help by Xavier Amador and The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks, as well as turned to a close family friend diagnosed with schizophrenia. The director also enlisted help from a medical advisor to “read every draft of the script” and help in “making adjustments in regards to Adam’s behavior, the treatment for him, the psychiatric hospital [and] etiquette.”
“We definitely wanted to find a visual filmic expression for the illness, but we worked hard either through research or our advisors to make sure that we don’t trivialize or romanticize the illness at all,” the director explains, adding he didn’t want the film to act as “a case study of a case.” He adds, “At the end of the day, though, you are telling a story and the main goal is to have the audience feel Adam’s feelings and understand his struggle. I think that’s what led us more than anything.”
Freudenthal’s film isn’t afraid to showcase the rollercoaster of Adam’s emotions and symptoms, as well as remind the audience that young adults struggling with mental illness deserve just as much sympathy and humanity as others. In one moment of the film, Adam says that teens with cancer are shown more compassion and patience. But for those with schizophrenia, “people can’t wait to make you someone else’s problems,” he says. “No one wants to grant our wishes.” The blunt statement was intentional, Freudenthal explains.
“It was important to show the adversity and the misconceptions that he [Adam] encounters,” Freudenthal says. “I think what film can do, unlike any other medium, is let us walk in the shoes of somebody else for a couple of hours, see the world through their eyes. It was important to show that people with schizophrenia are basically people. They have the same desires, longing, [and] the same passion that we all do.”
Aware that the film is arriving as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, Freudenthal believes films can be “great generators of empathy” and is hopeful his film will influence everyone to “look at people with schizophrenia without preconceived notions and judgment.”
He says, “The next time we encounter someone with the illness, [I hope] we encounter them as a human first… seeing everyone as equal and seeing people as sort of suffering from an illness other than being the illness, that’s we wanted to leave audience members with.”
Words on Bathroom Walls will be released on Aug. 21.
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