August 22, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Thor Freudenthal
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the romantic drama “Words on Bathroom Walls” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A high-school senior with schizophrenia wants to go to culinary school to become a chef, and he has a hard time dealing with the stigma of his mental illness, which he hides from a fellow student who’s his secret crush.
Culture Audience: “Words on Bathroom Walls” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about young love, but some of the movie’s occasionally trite or hokey way of portraying mental illness might offend or frustrate viewers.
In romantic dramas about high-school students, the biggest problems that the students usually face are issues about academics, sports or popularity among their peers. “Words on Bathroom Walls” goes deep into the serious issue of mental illness by having its narrator/protagonist struggling with schizophrenia, which causes problems for him at home and at school. Directed by Thor Freudenthal and written by Nick Naveda (based on the novel by Julia Walton), “Words on Bathroom Walls” makes a sincere effort to portray this psychiatric disorder with respect, but the results sometime veer into the type of hokey territory that is seen all too-often in teen dramas.
The movie’s most ludicrous and melodramatic moments are elevated by the above-average performances by Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell, who play the would-be teen couple at the center of the story. Without the acting talent of these two stars, “Words on Bathroom Walls” would be on par with the lower-quality “disease of the week” story that is usually made for mediocre television shows. The movie also has some witty dialogue which is much better than some of the contrived, unrealistic situations in the story.
It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that Adam Petrazelli (played by Plummer) has been living with mental illness (which includes having delusions) for a while, but he has more recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which includes having delusions. Adam, who is a senior in high school, lives with his divorced mother Beth (played by Molly Parker) in an unnamed U.S. city. (The movie was actually filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina.)
Adam loves to cook, and his career goal is to become a professional chef, but he worries about how his mental illness will affect his chances to reach that goal. Early on in the movie, Adam comments in a voiceover about his awareness that he had schizophrenia: “What I would’ve given for a classic case of glaucoma, because soon after, I started hearing the voices.”
Adam doesn’t just hear voices. He also sees three fictional people who are part of his hallucinations and who become his imaginary companions/advisors when he’s going through a schizophrenic episode. Joaquin (played by Devon Bostick) is a guy in his late teens whom Adam describes as being like “the horny best friend in a ‘90s teen movie following you around.” Rebecca (played by AnnaSophia Robb) is a neo-hippie type in her 20s who likes to spread optimism and positive vibes. Bodyguard (played by Lobo Sebastian) is a rough-looking, tracksuit-wearing protector in his 30s who carries around a baseball bat and other weapons. Bodyguard doesn’t hesitate to get violent if he thinks Adam is in danger. Occasionally, some of Bodyguard’s friends (who wear similar tracksuits) also show up to do some damage.
Adam is the type of teenager who speaks like he’s about 10 years older than his real age. In a voiceover, he asks: “How hard could it be to hide my burgeoning insanity from the unforgiving ecosystem that is high school?” Adam is keeping his mental illness a secret from the people at his public high school, but it’s a secret that was exposed in an incident that led to him being diagnosed with schizophrenia. This incident is shown in a flashback scene.
While attending a chemistry class, Adam had a disturbing psychotic break in which he hallucinated that the Bodyguard and his friends were destroying the classroom. The imaginary mayhem caused Adam to accidentally strike out at his acquaintance/lab partner Todd (played by Aaron Domingues), who was severely burned when a container of chemicals accidentally spilled on his arm. This incident led to Adam being expelled from school and shunned by Todd, who hangs out with a group of school bullies who taunt Adam with insults about his mental illness.
Adam’s expulsion from school comes at a very tricky time for him because he’s applying to go to culinary school, and he won’t be eligible without a high-school diploma. And something else has happened in his life that he’s not happy about: His mother Beth has started dating a man named Paul (played by Walton Goggins), and the relationship has become serious enough that Paul has moved into the family home. Paul and Beth are very much in love, and Paul makes it clear to Adam that he’s in the relationship for the long haul.
Adam tries to keep his emotional distance from Paul, who is willing to help Beth with the responsibilities of caring for a schizophrenic child. Adam and Beth have no relationship with Adam’s father, who abandoned the family years ago. Later in the story, Adam gets some news about his family that makes him feel even more insecure about his mental illness and how it affects the close emotional bond that he’s had with his mother.
Beth is the type of mother who goes overboard in trying to find ways that Adam can be “cured” of his schizophrenia. She has dozens of books and magazine articles, she spends hours poring over information on the Internet, and she’s heavily involved in online support communities for parents of schizophrenic children. Beth’s devotion to Adam is indisputable, but the movie demonstrates that her overzealousness in helping Adam is almost to a fault, because it’s with the expectation that all her efforts will lead to Adam eventually being “cured.” It’s why Beth pushes for Adam to starting taking a prescribed experimental drug that could help with his schizophrenia.
Since there’s no cure for schizophrenia at this time, the best that schizophrenic people can do is try to manage their mental illness. If they are fortunate enough to be under a doctor’s care, the treatment usually means that the patients have to take prescribed medication. When the medication works and the patient feels better, the vicious circle comes when the patient thinks the medication is no longer needed, the patient stops taking the medication, and then the worst symptoms of the mental illness come back again. The movie depicts Adam being caught up in this frustrating and emotionally debilitating cycle.
Beth is able to get Adam enrolled on short notice in a Catholic school that accepts Adam as a student, on the condition that Adam maintain a 3.5 GPA, score above 90% on the school’s annual benchmark exam, and give monthly updates on his psychiatric treatment. During an enrollment meeting that Beth, Paul and Adam have with the school’s stern but compassionate principal Sister Catherine (played by Beth Grant), Adam hallucinates that Sister Catherine’s head catches on fire, and the fire spreads throughout the entire room.
At his new school, Adam is predictably a loner whose socially awkward and introverted nature makes it difficult for him to make new friends. The students, who mostly come from privileged families, aren’t exactly welcoming. Adam is also an “outsider” because he’s not Catholic and he isn’t religious. Therefore, when the school’s students attend Catholic services, he cannot participate.
On his first day at school, when Adam is in the men’s room, he sees a fellow student paying a female student named Maya Arnez (played by Russell) in exchange for homework that she did for him. (This men’s room later becomes the place where Adam hallucinates messages on the walls—hence, the title of this story.)
The way that Adam looks at Maya, it’s obvious that he’s attracted to her, but he nervously bungles his first conversation with her. Maya later strikes up a conversation with him over lunch in the school’s cafeteria. It’s during this conversation that they both find out that they share a similar quirky sense of humor where they like to poke fun at some of life’s absurdities.
It turns out that Maya is in her senior year too, and she’s a star pupil at the school: She’s an “A” student who’s the student-body president, and she’s gotten early acceptance into Duke University. Maya also proudly tells Adam that she fully expects to be chosen as the class valedictorian.
Maya might want the traditional honor of being the class valedictorian, but she sees herself as enough of a nonconformist that she looks down on another high-school tradition: She doesn’t believe in the prom, and she doesn’t want to go. Adam finds out about Maya’s dislike of prom activities during their cafeteria conversation, when Maya abruptly brushes off a female student who approaches her about being involved in the prom committee.
Taylor explains to Adam, “I choose not to affiliate myself with patriarchal norms like prom.” It’s that this point in the movie, considering this is a teen romance story, that you know that there will definitely be a scene where Maya is at the school’s prom. Adam doesn’t mind the idea of going to the school’s prom. If he does go, it’s very obvious he only wants to go with Maya as his date.
When Adam asks Maya about why she would risk her status and reputation in the school to help other students cheat, she says that the money she makes is a “side hustle” for her. Because Adam now knows that Maya will accept money to help other students get better grades, he offers to hire her to be his math tutor, since math is one of his weakest subjects and he needs to maintain a 3.5 GPA.
At first, Maya is reluctant to help Adam because she says the pay rate he cites is too low for her. But Maya changes her mind when Adam invites Maya over to dinner at his home and she meets Beth, who tells Maya the amount she can afford to pay her to tutor Adam, and Maya accepts the amount.
These tutoring sessions lead to Adam and Maya becoming closer, but he’s afraid to tell her about his schizophrenia. Several times, Maya senses that something is wrong with Adam, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he lies and makes up excuses, such as he’s just tired, or he has a headache condition, or he’s having a bad day.
Meanwhile, Maya has a big secret of her own that she hasn’t told Adam. She goes to great lengths to lie and cover up this secret. When the secret is revealed, it isn’t too surprising because a major clue was there from the start of Adam and Maya’s first meeting.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” has a subplot of Adam establishing a friendly rapport with the school’s chief priest Father Patrick (played by Andy Garcia), who counsels Adam during confessionals, even though Adam tells Father Patrick up front that he’s not Catholic. Father Patrick can see that Adam is troubled, and he’s aware of Adam’s psychiatric problems, but Father Patrick doesn’t push the issue with Adam and seems to accept Adam for who he is.
The last third of the movie has a lot of melodrama that’s typical of a teen romance movie, but with the added element of schizophrenia. Parker and Goggins give solid performances as the main parental figures in the story. However, Adam and Maya’s budding romance is the main draw of this movie, which goes in a lot of the expected directions for this adolescent love story. Fortunately, Plummer and Russell (who was a standout in the 2019 drama “Waves”) give very believable and emotionally genuine performances.
At times, “Words on Bathroom Walls” seems to use schizophrenia as merely just another plot device in the obligatory “obstacle/secret” that most romantic stories have to create conflict for the story’s couple. At other times, the movie does a fairly good job of portraying the frustration and loneliness that schizophrenics must feel when experiencing a delusional world that only they can see.
Some of the movie’s schizophrenic visual effects are a bit heavy-handed, but it’s to make a point that these delusions aren’t just quiet little thoughts that go away just by closing your eyes and trying to think of something else. “Words on Bathroom Walls” has some very formulaic ways of portraying the story’s teen romance, but the admirable performances from Plummer and Russell improve the quality of the film so that it’s not an ordinary teen movie.
LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions released “Words on Bathroom Walls” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.