Words on Bathroom Walls is an important movie. This mainstream dramatic teen romance normalises schizophrenia. While it’s often disturbing, it has an authenticity about it. That has much to do with the balance in the script by Nick Naveda – based on a novel of the same name by Julia Walton – and the calibre of the lead performers.
Misdiagnosed with a variety of illnesses, quick-witted high school student Adam (Charlie Plummer) finally learns why he’s experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations. He suffers from a mental illness. After a psychotic episode in his high school chemistry class, Adam is expelled in the middle of his senior year. This jeopardises his chances of attending culinary college. But with the help of an experimental drug and the support of his loving mother Beth (Molly Parker), Adam is able to enrol in a nearby Catholic school to see out the term and earn his diploma. Although Adam’s delusions cause him to see and hear imaginary characters, he manages to keep his mental illness secret from all but the Principal, Sister Catherine (Beth Grant). She’s given Adam a chance on the proviso that he stays on the meds.
Adam frequently sees three visions side by side. One is an ethereal and eternally optimistic young beauty (AnnaSophia Robb). Another is a horny teenage boy (Devon Bostick), who shows up at the most inopportune moments. And then there’s a cigar-chomping tough guy (Lobo Sebastian). After enlisting classmate Maya (Taylor Russell) to be his tutor for the first time in years Adam begins experiencing a sense of hope. He desperately tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy, but his “high on life” attitude is not destined to last. This puts his newly formed relationship with Maya – and his future– at risk.
What struck me was the compelling characterisations of Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell in the lead roles. I should also mention Andy Garcia who plays a non-judgmental priest to whom Adam turns.
This is a movie that brings tears, despair and hope. The mood shifts as Adam’s illness takes hold and that is testament to the direction of Thor Freudenthal. While the theme is around teens and they are likely to be its primary audience, Words on Bathroom Walls will readily resonate with adults of all ages. If it helps remove the stigma of schizophrenia, which it does in an engaging way, it has done its job.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.