'Words on Bathroom Walls': Film Review

Words on Bathroom Walls - Publicity still - H 2020
Jacob Yakob
Takes illness seriously without being overwhelmed by the subject.

Thor Freudenthal adapts Julia Walton's novel about a teen's struggle to live a normal life despite his schizophrenia.

A kid with high hopes for his life struggles to cope with schizophrenia in Words on Bathroom Walls, Thor Freudenthal's adaptation of a YA novel by Julia Walton. Attempting to help viewers understand an experience most of us can barely imagine — some still confuse it with multiple-personality disorder — the pic self-consciously adapts tropes from more lighthearted teen genres while always keeping one eye on the darkest places this disease can go. The possibility of romance makes this period of crisis more poignant, and (along with a very strong cast) should help sell the tale to young viewers who might otherwise balk.

Charlie Plummer (Lean on Pete) plays Adam, a cuisine-obsessed kid who tests new recipes on his appreciative single mother Beth (Molly Parker) and intends to become a chef. Cooking is also a way of quieting the voices he began hearing a few years ago. Not only voices, but full-blown characters who loiter around him most of the time, unseen by anyone else in the room: There's an oversexed-best-friend type (Devon Bostick); a New Agey, supportive girl (AnnaSophia Robb); and a cigar-chomping bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) who tends to shout warnings at Adam when his hallucinations are about to swirl out of control.

If these three cutesy characters seem a too-tidy way to represent a distressingly untidy inner experience, there's another presence as well: a dark voice that whispers menacingly offscreen or from shadows, sometimes accompanied by wisps or billows of black smoke. While the imagery may be familiar from horror films, it's a potent announcement of his hallucinations' ability to trigger real-world violence. When one such episode leads to ostracization at his school and a string of new schools don't work out, Adam winds up stuck at a Catholic school that agrees not to share his diagnosis with other students. Finally taking an experimental medication that seems to quash his hallucinations, he intends to keep his head down and pass for normal.

That's just what he does with Maya (Taylor Russell, of Waves), a self-confident scholarship kid, likely to be valedictorian, who gets paid to write papers for her better-off classmates. "You're kinda weird, are you special-needs?" she asks him at first. But he manages to get her hired as his after-school tutor, and after a bit of "I'm a more impressive nerd than you" one-upsmanship, the two click convincingly.

While a conceit in which Adam explains his travails to an offscreen psychiatrist is slightly clumsy — by the film's end, he's clearly just talking to the viewer — the plot offers a substitute foil as well: Adam is an unbeliever, but finds himself comforted in the school's confessional by Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), a sympathetic man who seems relieved to have something to talk about other than his teen flock's guilt over masturbation.

The priest is a welcome adult presence as Adam begins feeling less than supported at home. Though she puts all her energy into researching possible treatments for him, Beth has gotten serious about a boyfriend, Walton Goggins' Paul, who seems less sympathetic. Fearing a psychotic break, Paul takes away the knives any would-be chef requires, and seems eager to put the boy under professional care; Adam is convinced Paul wants to get rid of him so he can have Beth to himself. The film doesn't quite address the possibility that this antagonized feeling — perfectly normal for an only kid whose long-single mom has fallen in love — is to some extent driven by the paranoia that can accompany schizophrenia.

But that topic deserves less time than the movie's growing concern that Adam's illness will derail a romance that hasn't quite started. Nick Naveda's adaptation of Walton's book rations out worrisome developments with sensitivity, and the friendly chemistry between Plummer and Russell does the rest of the work. Things get as ugly as they must for this film to have any claim to honesty about its subject. But the movie has built up enough genuine warmth and displayed enough sensitivity that even the formulaic nature of its resolution does little to dull its impact.

Production company: Kick the Habit Productions
Distributors: LD Entertainment, Roadside Attractions (Available Friday, August 21)
Cast: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Andy Garcia, Beth Grant, AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Screenwriter: Nick Naveda
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon
Director of photography: Michael Goi
Production designer: Brian Stultz
Costume designer: Mona May
Editor: Peter McNulty
Composer: The Chainsmokers, Andrew Hollander
Casting director: John Papsidera

PG-13, 110 minutes