I love the coming-of-age stories and always look forward to seeing what each new film will bring to the genre. Words on Bathroom Walls is a very different kind of coming-of-age film because it doesn’t spend too much time on the familiar tropes explored in this genre.
Based on the popular novel of the same name, Words on Bathroom Walls is a coming-of-age story exploring what it is like to be a teenager struggling with a mental illness. Charlie Plummer stars as Adam Petrazelli, a high school senior doing his best to live a normal life while coping with paranoid schizophrenia. One day during science class, Adam’s schizophrenia gets the best of him, and he spirals out of control. The violent incident ultimately results in Adam being expelled from school, leaving Adam and his mother (Molly Parker) completely devastated.
Determined to do what is best for her son’s future, Charlie’s mom enrolls him in a private Catholic academy to complete his senior year. During his first day at the academy, Charlie meets Maya (Taylor Russell) and is immediately drawn to her rebellious yet charming personality. With Maya’s friendship and a trial of a new experimental drug, Charlie is hopeful he can finish out his senior year without anyone discovering his mental illness.
These types of movies usually deal with sexual discovery and the relationships that go along with them. Words on Bathroom Walls spends most of its runtime exploring what it is like to be a teenager dealing with schizophrenia. Adam hears voices in his head, and we see how they impact his life. The voices all talk at once, telling Adam what he should and shouldn’t do while overlapping each other. This causes Adam to hallucinate and lose control of his action.
The voices that Adam hears are also brought to life in visual form by some of the supporting cast, including AnnaSophia Robb and Devon Bostick. The way that these actors are presented helps the viewer have a better understanding of what it is like for a person to have such a disease and the impact it has on a person’s life daily.
Director Thor Freudenthal handles the subject matter with a lot of love and care. Adam’s story is told through his own eyes, allowing the viewer to have a better understanding of the challenges of what it is like to live with schizophrenia. It should be noted that anyone who has a mental illness or knows someone who does will see few moments in the film that may be difficult to watch. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part, to see a realistic portrayal of this disease in the film. Freudenthal doesn’t try to sugarcoat what it is like to have a mental illness, and he still manages to tell a story that appeals to the film’s target audience.
Charlie Plummer, who is still relatively new to the acting world, delivers one hell of a performance as Adam. From the very first scene, it is clear Plummer took this role seriously and did his homework. This is a highly complex and nuanced performance. I would even go as far as to say that some of his mannerisms were realistic enough for me to sometimes forget I was watching someone acting. It should also be noted that the character of Adam is portrayed as a real person who is merely trying to live a healthy life despite having a mental illness. Way too often in films, mental illnesses like schizophrenia consume a person’s life, and we fail to see him or her as a person. This is not the case with Plummer’s take on Adam, as he is trying to fulfill his dream of going to culinary school and becoming a chef.
The character of Maya brought to life by the radiant Taylor Russell serves as a beacon of hope to Adam. Maya becomes a friend and love interest to Adam, but her character also has some secrets of her own. I always love it when characters have more depth to them than what initially meets the eye, and Russell has proven that she can handle multi-layered performances with ease. By embracing roles like Emily in Waves and now Maya in this film, Russell is well on her way to becoming a superstar. While her character Maya is more of a supporting character, Russell still elevates every scene she is in. She has such a compelling on-screen presence that just lures you in and can develop strong chemistry with all of her co-stars. I seriously can’t wait to see what she does next.
Now, as much as I did like this movie overall, I did have a major issue with the film’s ending. I fully understand this is a commercial film made for teenagers, however, I found the film’s ending to be insultingly unrealistic as if it were out of a fairytale. Without getting into spoilers, for a movie tackling difficult subject matter in such a bold and unique way, slapping a Hollywoodized ending on it just felt wrong. Maybe its because I am married to someone who has a mental illness, and I can personally tell you that it isn’t always easy. The way that this film ties all the loose ends together is just insulting, especially with how honest the movie was about dealing with a mental illness leading up to the conclusion.
Despite the ending, I still recommend checking out Words on Bathroom Walls. It is a different kind of coming-of-age film, and one I can only hope will lead to more stories like it being told. Charlie Plummer delivers his best performance to date while Taylor Russell continues to prove she will be the next big thing in Hollywood. I applaud the cast and filmmakers for having the courage to make a film that not only explores schizophrenia but does so in a way that makes it accessible and relatable for teenagers. I only wish that the film had ended stronger.