As a kid I read a ton of cheesy high school romance novels. The biggest problems were things like the boyfriend leaving for college or deciding who to take to the prom. Somewhere in the ensuing years, young adult literature morphed into a bunch of dystopian hellscapes and terminal illnesses. At least it feels like that when I take a look at the YA novels that are adapted for the big screen. The looming sphere of death is not hanging over everyone’s heads In Words On Bathroom Walls, but this book to film adaptation is still pretty damn dark.
High school senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) dreams of becoming a professional chef. A diagnosis of schizophrenia jeopardizes that goal. He experiences violent hallucinations while in chemistry class, and as a result, transfers to a private Catholic high school. His devoted mother (Molly Parker) tirelessly searches for a cure, resulting in Adam’s participation in an experimental drug trial. Maya (Taylor Russell), the presumptive class valedictorian at his new school, tutors Adam and sparks begin to fly. The effects of the drug trial, a blossoming romance with Maya, and his mother’s surprise pregnancy overwhelm Adam as he struggles to deal with his schizophrenia.
There are a lot of movies that focus on mental illness, so the fact that Words On Bathroom Walls gives us one who is not also a homicidal maniac feels very welcome. Instead, we get a pretty deep dive on what it must be like to struggle with schizophrenia. I do not know how accurate the representations of Adam’s hallucinations are, but they certainly seem real. The horror movie quality to the visuals that represent these episodes provides a great deal of tension and suspense.
While the movie focuses on Adam, and always showcases his point of view, the secondary characters are satisfyingly fleshed out. We get a glimpse at Maya’s difficult home life, illustrating the motivations behind some of her rule-breaking activities at school. Adam’s mom comes off as almost too perfect in the early moments of the film, but as things progress, the cracks behind the optimistic mask begin to show.
Director Thor Freudenthal leans into the heavy themes in his film, and at times it can feel a bit melodramatic. In one scene Adam tells his therapist that they are not going to have their “Good Will Hunting moment”, an acknowledgment that total originality is not the goal of this movie. While we get some teenage rom-com elements sprinkled in here and there, the focus always returns to Adam and his schizophrenia.
The ending of Words On Bathroom Walls is unrealistic but expected. These stories have a formula to follow, after all. Predictable as it may be, the strong performances and the interesting visuals used to represent mental illness make this movie worth a watch.
Words On Bathroom Walls is PG-13 and will be in theaters, where available, on August 21, 2020.
About Words On Bathroom Walls
“Words On Bathroom Walls” tells the story of witty and introspective Adam (Charlie Plummer), who appears to be your typical young adult – a little unkempt with raging hormones and excited about a future pursuing his dream of becoming a chef. Expelled halfway through his senior year following an incident in chemistry class, Adam is diagnosed with a mental illness. Sent to a Catholic academy to finish out his term, Adam has little hope of fitting in and just wants to keep his illness secret until he can enroll in culinary school. But when he meets outspoken and fiercely intelligent Maya (Taylor Russell), there is an instant soulful and comforting connection. As their romance deepens, she inspires him to open his heart and not be defined by his condition. Now, with the love and support of his girlfriend and family, Adam is hopeful for the very first time that he can see the light and triumph over the challenges that lie ahead.