I got an email from the Florida Film Critics Circle chair: “I wanted to make sure everyone saw this. I think it would be great for several of us to have reviews ready when the embargo finally lifts.” The “this” she was referring to was Words on Bathroom Walls. I’d received a screener link for it. A teen movie based on a YA novel. I ignored it. It looked pedestrian. But now I was Intrigued. Why would the chair single this movie out?
Teenaged Adam (Charlie Plummer) thinks he’s having vision problems, but his new glasses don’t solve the issue. Glasses don’t stop you from seeing things that aren’t there. By the time he reaches his senior year of high school, Adam is diagnosed with schizophrenia. He tries to keep it a secret. High schoolers (heck, most people) aren’t understanding when it comes to mental illness. But Adam’s secret is soon exposed after an outburst in chemistry class leads to a serious accident. Expelled soon after, Adam must finish out his final year in a private Catholic school. This is his last chance. He tries to keep his head down and graduate so that he can pursue his dream of becoming a chef.
Things become more complicated when Maya (Taylor Russell), a fellow student, enters the picture. Not exactly a manic pixie dream girl, she’s still ambitious, smart, and bold; refreshingly different. A connection is made, and as the year goes on, Adam tries to wrangle his grades, a budding romance, and the serious effects of his mental illness, which he conceals from Maya.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a glossy teen movie. The cinematography gleams, the settings are picturesque, the cast beautiful. And with a soundtrack by The Chainsmokers (with co-composer Andrew Hollander), the EDM pop duo beloved by young’uns, it’s clear who this movie is aimed at. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Representation leads to acceptance. Seeing people who do not fit the narrow criteria for “normal” as the heroes of their own stories is an important step to broadening our understanding of the different lives around us. Familiarity combats fear, especially when introduced at an early age. And off the top of my head, there aren’t many movies that deal with mental illness in a way that’s palatable for younger, or possibly, more sensitive audiences. And so, Words on Bathroom Walls has value just for what it’s about and who it’s made for.
Of course, value doesn’t necessarily mean good.
But Words is ingratiating and an easy watch. It’s a sweet movie about a not-so-sweet subject.
And yeah, a lot of the movie is broad. Directed by Thor Freudenthal, who gave us Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Hotel for Dogs, that’s not exactly a surprise. So, Adam’s hallucinations are often CGI assisted, loud and showy: a classroom engulfed in a swirling wall of flying detritus, a black blob growing inside a lab beaker or just beyond a door frame, and a wooden office engulfed in imaginary flames, played for laughs as it crashes on and around an unaware cast.
Mostly, though, his visions are represented by three people that cleverly (though loosely) embody the Id, Ego, and Superego, or at the very least represent different aspects of Adam’s emotions. One is sweet and sensible, dressed like a hippie; another pure libido and longing, strutting in silk robe and boxers; while the last embodies rage and anger, a bald man in a tracksuit constantly stalking behind Adam with a baseball bat.
Not exactly subtle. But it does do a good job of putting the audience in Adam’s shoes. And by having these manifestations clearly represent his personality, they become less scary. They’re not an “other” or something we could never understand. They’re him. His emotions. The voices in his head are simply his thoughts. He just can’t distinguish them as such. And so, while a lot of the movie is pretty cliché, there are wry and insightful observations about mental illness and what living with it is like.
And as for the clichés, they were clichés that I enjoy, for the most part. At least 95% of the characters and the actors playing them are impossibly positive and likable. Adam’s mom (Molly Parker) is warm, caring, understanding. A priest, played with charm and sparkle by Andy Garcia, has all the answers, even when he doesn’t. Maya accepts Adam implicitly, even after seeing him writhing, strapped into a hospital bed. On and on. But I’m a sucker for that kind of positivity and I’m a sucker for a feel good movie with a happy ending, even if that involves a tired trope like a climactic emotional confession/speech in front of the whole school, with the events that allow said speech to happen making little to no real world sense.
Suffering from my own demons, major depressive disorder among them, there was a note of dark familiarity to what I was seeing, but it was nice to see that familiarity couched within such a positive framework, often funny, always sweet, but never trivializing mental illness. If you’re wondering why a movie like this is important, look at the stigma attached to schizophrenia. It’s so strong even I made sure to clarify that my mental illness was not that one. Just goes to show you, perfect or not, why we need movies like Words on Bathroom Walls.
…And now I know why the FFCC singled it out.