Thank goodness Words on Bathroom Walls exists. I'm often skeptical about movies that deal with mental illness because they don't always portray it realistically. Filmmakers tend to exaggerate the symptoms for comedy (The Dream Team) or pathos (Joker), consequently trivializing a very serious issue. Finding one that does the subject justice is rare. This picture, based on the novel by Julia Walton, falls into that trap once or twice but is generally a very authentic portrait of what it's like to live with schizophrenia.
Charlie Plummer (The Clovehitch Killer) plays Adam, a teenager dealing with paranoid schizophrenia. He has a group of “helpers” only he can see. One is a baseball bat-carrying defender (Lobo Sebastian), one a romance-minded hippy girl (AnnaSophia Robb), and one that's essentially his id (Devon Bostick). He relies on them for advice during times of stress. When Adam is expelled following a psychotic breakdown in school, his mom (Molly Parker) and her live-in boyfriend (Walton Goggins) send him to a Catholic school, where he receives guidance from an empathetic priest (Andy Garcia). Adam additionally befriends Maya (Waves' Taylor Russell), the smartest kid in school who also happens to accept payment from her peers for homework help and other needs.
Words on Bathroom Walls addresses the worry Adam has that people will view him as broken if he acknowledges his illness. Because of that, he's perpetually trying to hide it. Aside from seeing the helpers who aren't really there, he occasionally hears voices. They send him negative messages that fuel his fear of rejection by others. His life is a perpetual attempt to manage the symptoms, but since he isn't always certain of what's real and what isn't, that proves difficult. Feeling that his mother doesn't understand what he's going through adds to the stress. I know a couple people who have schizophrenia. The manner in which the film depicts the symptoms and struggles Adam faces are very much in line with what they've described to me.
Forming meaningful relationships can be difficult for schizophrenics. It's a hard disorder to understand if you don't have it, so family members and friends can become scared by the unusual behavior that accompanies it. Words on Bathroom Walls delves into that via the friendship between Adam and Maya. She senses that he's troubled in some way, although she can't quite pinpoint what it is. He, meanwhile, is desperate to avoid another total breakdown. The movie puts their rapport under a microscope, showing the ways, big and small, that mental health issues add challenges to forming connections. More importantly, it shows that those same issues don't preclude one from having solid relationships. That's such a vital message for the young target audience to hear.
Charlie Plummer is excellent as Adam, playing him as what he is – a normal kid coping with a very specific problem most people don't have to contend with. He brings a lot of emotion to the role, helping viewers to understand what Adam is going through inside. Taylor Russell has appealing chemistry with him. Once again, she establishes herself as a major talent. Maya, with her hustling gig, is a slightly cliched character initially, yet Russell brings great humanity to her. In later scenes, as we learn Maya has her own issues, the actress really lights the screen on fire.
Every once in a while, Words on Bathroom Walls forces things to occur a little too conveniently, as in a scene where Adam takes Maya out to dinner and just happens to run into a bully from his old school who brings up the meltdown. Comic relief from Adam's helpers intermittently plays a little cutesy, as well. I wasn't too bothered by those things, though. Directed by Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), the film does an outstanding job where it really counts – depicting a young man valiantly fighting his mental illness and refusing to let it keep him from finding happiness.
out of four
Words on Bathroom Walls is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.