Director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) takes Nick Naveda’s scripting of Words on Bathroom Walls and brings Julia Walton’s insightful novel to the screen as a richly compelling masterpiece. The result is a potentially timeless film about coming to terms with mental illness while coming of age at the same time.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) is an average teenager until his father decides that he has better things to do than be a husband and father. He and his mother then have nothing left to cling to but each other. To help her cope, Adam begins to cook for his mom, getting better and better until he has dreams of culinary school. But lurking in the background are voices, hallucinations, and psychotic incidents that he doesn’t share. When his mom remarries, they worsen to the point that Adam has a major breakdown, forcing him to change schools. This move, combined with a new treatment for his schizophrenia, allows Adam the opportunity to see a future where he makes new friends and goes to culinary school. But before that can happen, Adam has to get out of his own way and keep the people inside his head off that path, as well.
The script is tight, showing the progression of wellness, illness, hope, and setback without ever becoming preachy, instructional, or boring. It gives an accurate view of mental illness without being pushy about acceptance. Instead, it displays how not only someone with the illness must cope, but the varied ways that those around them react and cope as well. Nothing ever seems forced, and the action is fluid from the first moments to the closing credits.
Freudenthal understands the workings of the adolescent mind better than any director since John Hughes, and it shows through the ease of the actors’ portrayals. They do not appear to be so much performing a part as walking through their own fears, loves, and hopes. This is true of the atypical schizophrenic Adam right down to the typical high-school bully, both on and off campus. Even the background characters, with their dialogue, smiles, and smirks, finish filling every scene’s frame. Plummer’s portrayal of a teen tortured by both a mental illness and everything that happens as one is maturing is particularly inspired; he will be an actor to watch over the years. Not to be discounted is Taylor Russell’s performance as his friend Maya, carrying her own load of teenage troubles. And even though their parts are small, Walton Goggins as Adam’s stepfather and Andy Garcia as the Catholic school’s resident priest are both notable turns that only elevate the film.
There isn’t any cohesive way to show what it is like to live with schizophrenia, especially since traits of the illness can be the same among individuals, but personal experiences vary widely. The filmmakers chose to share a sometimes exaggerated, sometimes subdued version of the disorder. They tasked their visual effects department to provide the general feel of the disconnection and disjointed thoughts and experiences someone suffering this illness might encounter. They delivered, allowing the audience to experience much of what Adam does from the inside out rather than looking at schizophrenia from the outside in yet again.
Words on Bathroom Walls is at times charming, and at other times disturbing, but at no point is it dull or unentertaining. As far as films addressing both teen issues and mental health, this one leaves a permanent mark.