Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on schizophrenia nor have it nor know anyone who has it. Whether the story accurately or authentically represents this illness is up to interpretation from the audience and readers, especially those with firsthand knowledge or experience. In my review I will not be able to speak to the authenticity on the subject matter, and will only be able to speak upon the context of the film and judge it for what it is.
Based on the book of the same name by Julia Walton, Words on Bathroom Walls follows a teenage boy named Adam (Charlie Plummer). Adam has been experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations for some time, although has not able to accurately call it that. He lives with dotting mother (Molly Parker) and takes care of her after his father abandons them. One day, Adam has a psychotic break in the middle of class which results in him getting expelled and finally getting a diagnosis for his symptoms. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, his dreams of becoming a chef and living an ordinary life become distant. His mother aggressively seeks treatment and medication that can help her son, meanwhile, her new beau (Walter Goggins) develops a somewhat strained relationship with Adam. Once he settles down at a new school he meets Maya (Taylor Russell) who becomes a bright spot in his life.
The theme of this film is hope. It has a constant presence during the ups and downs of Adams experiences, and it is mostly showcased through Molly Parker immense charm. Her caring and tender presence provides Adam and the audience an assured confidence that maybe things will work out. This is sentiment is cared through with Maya as her spunky smart-ass persona is the much-needed reprieve Adam needs. Although, it is slightly strange to see Parker and Russell in these roles as they play similar characters (Russell more so) in Netflix’s Lost in Space. Despite the connection between the sometimes mother-daughter duo, the two women are the beating heart of the film, alongside Andy Garcia. Let’s just say, Garcia, gives Andrew Scott a run for his money in the Hot Priest race, and it the healthy dose of energy that we need in a film like this.
Depicting mental illness is not a new venture in cinema. As it is a visual medium, filmmakers have all tried their hand at how best to visually represent the mindset of their characters. Some have been more successful than others. And some have been incredibly insulting and shortsighted. Words on Bathroom Walls doesn’t overdo it with Adam’s hallucinations, instead, the approach feels more grounded, visceral, and on par with what many studies have claimed to be the case.
His primal emotions, self-preservation (Lobo Sebastian), reason (AnnaSophia Robb), and horniness (Devon Bostick) keep him company in the form of hallucinations. They are not cartoonish or over the top. Their characteristics fit within the margins of Adam’s basic emotional and mental state as a teenager, often illustrating to us an internal mechanism we all have, such as; fight or flight, finding balance, or good ole’ teenaged horniness. Jared Bankens’ plays Adam’s dark thoughts that usually hide in the recesses of our minds, but because of Adams’ circumstances, they are front and centre.
The film honestly could have had the central illness swapped out with several others. There is a concerted effort to not overly explain or dramatise the matter, rather there is a personal character story at the heart that is crafted to be as relatable as possible. Adam’s general fears and discomforts are exacerbated by his illness, however, he (and the script) weave common themes and messages that illustrate just how thoroughly mental illness is often misunderstood. We all have processes we go through to find our own normal. Adams struggles to maintain control in his life are not so foreign. By grounding the story in a coming-of-age narrative it veers away from the sometimes romanticised or overly dramatic depictions of mental health. However, it is still a dramatised story, so there are the occasional plot beats that play for maximum emotional reaction.
Despite this being a coming-of-age narrative the film is surprisingly nuanced with its approach to Adam’s diagnosis. Most notably the characterisation of Adam feels far more true to the experiences a young person would have in his circumstances. He straightforwardly vocalises his concerns, avoiding the John Green-isms that plague the likes of many “teen suffers with illness” sub-genre films. Credit where credit is due, Charlie Plummer, does an excellent job balancing the emotional brevity of the situation, and the delicate nature of his protagonist. Without his subtle and sweet presence, the film would fall apart.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a sensitive and raw depiction of a young man’s battle to find control in his life. The film highlights the importance and effectiveness of honesty, supporting each other, patience, and most importantly, not hiding away from unfortunate circumstances. It is deftly handled from all involved and makes for an emotional movie experience.
Words on Bathroom Walls is in select theatres on August 21st
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter, you can see her support for women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.