Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon and Thor Freudenthal Director: Thor Freudenthal Screenplay: Nick Naveda Cast: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Andy Garcia, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant, Devon Bostick and Lobo Sebastian Distributor: Roadside Attractions
A feel-good teen tearjerker about a youngster afflicted with schizophrenia might seem a horrendously bad idea, and Thor Freudenthal’s adaptation of Julia Walton’s 2017 YA novel has trouble balancing its trek through the usual genre clichés with an attempt to deal with the subject of mental illness in a serious way. But thanks to the efforts of a strong cast, “Words on Bathroom Walls” emerges as a more sensitive, thoughtful film of its type than most, even if at the end it succumbs to too many familiar tropes.
It begins in a fashion that’s becoming tiresomely familiar—prolonged scene-setting narration from the protagonist. In this case, Adam (Charlie Plummer) is describing the onset of his illness to a therapist, and of course to us. He recalls how it began—at a time when he and his mom Beth (Molly Parker) were hit hard by the departure of his father—with voices in his head, and then progressed to hallucinations—on one hand a swirling mass of black smoke enveloping reality, and on the other a trio of imaginary entities that offered him unaided advice—Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a free-spirited hippie type delivering New Age nostrums; Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a horny, hedonistic womanizer; and the unnamed Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping muscle-man ready to demolish anything—or anyone—who disturbs him with an ever-present baseball bat and two equally quick-tempered buddies.
Adam has tried to hide what’s happening from his classmates, and Beth keeps hoping for a pharmaceutical cure. But when his mental instability is fully revealed in a devastating breakdown during a science lab, he’s forced to move to another school, and Beth and her new husband Paul (Walton Goggins) succeed in securing him a trial slot at St. Agnes, whose hard-bitten principal Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) is willing to allow him to transfer so long as he stays on his new meds. He needs his diploma in order to achieve his dream of enrolling in culinary school and become a chef, having become an expert cook since his dad abandoned them.
Adam’s troubles are far from over—he suspects his stepdad of plotting to have him institutionalized, his new meds are affecting his sense of taste, and initially he performs poorly academically. But things look up when he meets Maya (Taylor Russell), the proverbial high achiever who sells term papers to underperforming students and, after some prodding, agrees to become his tutor. He keeps his condition a secret from her (and as it turns out, she’s keeping mum about some things, too), but inevitably their feelings for one another deepen and real romance is in the air—though one might question the wisdom of having the lovebirds bond over a shared reverence for Drew Barrymore’s 1999 romcom “Never Been Kissed,” even if it’s intended as a joke.
Adam’s upward trajectory cannot continue unimpaired, of course, and inevitably “Words on Bathroom Walls”—an allusion to a particularly frightening episode in which he imagines malicious messages to him scrawled on the walls of the school’s boys restroom—embraces hackneyed plot turns. There’s an encounter with a bully from Adam’s old school as he and Maya have a night out. Adam’s decision to go off his meds to save his sense of taste leads him to react ferociously when Beth announces that she’s pregnant. It also leads to his suspension from school, endangering his graduation, just as he’s planning to take Maya to the prom. His decision to go anyway proves catastrophic.
A descent into permanent despair is averted, of course, through the intervention of Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), a remarkably perceptive, empathetic priest who has become Adams’s father-confessor, even though the boy claims to be an atheist. That leads to his rapprochement with his parents, and with Maya, as well as his decision to bare his soul at the school’s graduation ceremony—which in turn smoothes the way for his acceptance to culinary school.
There’s a pat quality to this finale that could have sunk the film entirely were it not for the fine performances. The key is Plummer, a remarkable young actor here blessed with the best material he’s had to work with since Andrew Haigh’s sadly underappreciated “Lean on Pete.” Even when the script turns saccharine, Plummer manages to rescue it from an attack of mawkishness. Credit must also go to Parker and Goggins, who bring unexpected nuance to characters that might easily have become stock. Although her role isn’t nearly as rounded as Plummer’s, Russell makes Maya a charming person in her own right. Garcia, meanwhile, underplays nicely as the sage priest.
Technically the film is first-rate. Michael Goi’s cinematography, Brian Stultz’s production design and Peter McNulty’s are all excellent, and the background score by Andrew Hollander and The Chainsmokers fits. The visual effects are well handled, too.
One must defer to those who suffer from schizophrenia about how accurately the effects of the condition are reflected in “Words on Bathroom Walls.” As a dramatization of one young man’s struggle, however, the film succeeds in subverting one’s worst expectations—a modest triumph, perhaps, but a real one.