Words on Bathroom Walls deserves praise for treating a serious mental illness with a touching sensitivity that’s compulsively watchable. The credit goes to Plummer and Russell, who create one of the most endearing, sweet romances the genre has done in quite some time.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a first in young-adult movies that treat a serious mental illness with a touching sensitivity that’s compulsively watchable. The film, yes, based on the pitfalls of the genre, is melodrama, but without being overly so. It’s also knowledgeable on its subject by treating it in a way that doesn’t make the protagonist a serial killer or a superhero. That credit here goes to the leads, who put an understated, soft, human touch on the matter, and create one of the most endearing young romances the genre has done in quite a while.
Words on Bathroom Walls tells a story of a high-school senior, Adam (Lean on Pete’s Charlie Plummer), a young man who dreams of being a chef. He plans on attending culinary school next year when the voices in his head suddenly start to appear in a visual form. After an incident in his science class left his friend injured, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia, his Mom (Deadwood’s Molly Parker) and stepfather (The Unicorn’s Walton Goggins) place him in a private school to get away from the constant bullying he is now undergoing. There, he meets Maya (Waves‘ Taylor Russell), a brilliant and even stronger willed fellow student who is selling papers on the side for some extra cash.
You have to admire the casting here by choosing two exceptionally talented actors who have made their marks in the independent film world instead of more trendy, popular stars of the CW fare. Plummer, involving scenes around groups of his peers, is the onlooker — an awkward, stoic wallflower. He has to be, by being observant, sensitive, and constantly aware of his surroundings. He has to be since he never knows who is real when they are talking to him. In fact, most of his interactions involve figments of his imagination that has caused the chemical imbalance.
The best comparison of the device used in the movie is Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Here, the adapted script is surprisingly heavy on special effects representing the dark loneliness caused by his condition. The characters in his imagination represent his insecurities that involve self-protection, friendship, and love. The best is played by Anna Sophia Robb, who plays the make love not war that partially drives the romance angle of the story. Most of these characters are clichés, Rebecca being a hippy flower child, and character actor Lobo Sebastian (Inherit the Viper) playing the typical, tough, strong man. Their representations of the story are not at all subtle, really over-the-top, but it never tries to hide the fact these are figments of Adam’s imagination.
The chemistry between Plummer and Russell is apparent, but refreshing in a sweet way with Plummer’s awkward sensitivity and Russell’s outspoken nature. It’s a nice change of pace for them, as both are used to roles that required them to play their parts with a stoic precision where they could communicate their thoughts with a single expression. Russell, who I proclaimed was destined for stardom after watching her in Escape Room and confirmed after watching her quietly thoughtful turn in Waves, is a welcome sight as the confident, strong-willed, and outspoken Maya. She boldly cuts loose here, so much so she punches a teenaged bully, who can be best described as a version of Hitler’s wet dream, and knocks him flat.
After having sat through grossly melodramatic young adult films like The Sun is Also A Star, Everything Everything, All the Bright Places, Five Feet Apart (please forgive me, Haley Lu), and the upcoming Chemical Hearts, Director Thor Freudenthal’s film is a welcome change of pace to watch a mainstream film treat its subject matter that’s not as manipulative as most efforts in the genre. For instance, Nick Naveda and Julia Walton’s script isn’t afraid to touch on subjects like embarrassing side-effects or other issues a teenager would have when taking these types of medications. Admittedly, it doesn’t show those effects, but Words On Bathroom Walls isn’t pretending to be hard-hitting on the subject matter. It wants to bring attention by presenting it in an entertaining way and by demystifying the illness for its audience.
Yes, it has its common tropes (insensitive authority figure) but manages to be smarter about some (parents are useless or uncaring), and the leads elevate the material. They are a wonderful pair and worth your time because it hits the right notes.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.