Film review: ‘WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The cinema has handled the topic of mental illness with vastly differing degrees of accuracy and sensitivity.  Films like Silver Linings Playbook have intelligently captured the complexities of mental illness and the way in which it impacts on sufferer’s loved ones while movies like Split have alarmingly equated mental illness with something monstrous.  Words on Bathroom Walls, which stars Lean On Pete’s Charlie Plummer, fortunately provides an accurate view of the frustration and debilitating trauma of mental health conditions but importantly offers a sense of hope.

Plummer plays Adam, an introverted high school student who begins to experience unsettling symptoms including auditory and visual hallucinations before being diagnosed with schizophrenia.  He manages to maintain a stable life in part due to the calming effect of his love of cooking but when a particularly intense episode leads to his expulsion from school, he becomes more fearful of his illness and determined to hide it from others.  This proves more difficult when he falls for the highly intelligent, no-nonsense Maya (Taylor Russell) a high achiever at his new school.

As a teen romantic dramedy based around the subject of schizophrenia, this film could have easily gone wrong by approaching the material superficially, melodramatically or with too much quirky humour.  Thankfully, for the most part, director Thor Freudenthal captures the right tone, deftly balancing the often-comical awkwardness of teenage years with the distressing effects of Adam’s illness and the drama it creates in his family.  The film does take a slightly unsettling turn into quirkiness as Adam hallucinates various characters who represent aspects of his personality and his psychological defence mechanisms, including a thuggish baseball bat-wielding bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), an incense-waving hippie-chick (AnnaSophia Robb) who tries to calm his fears and a libidinous creep (Devon Bostic aka Rodrick from the Wimpy Kid films) who pushes him to make a move on Maya.  These characters at first seem to clash with the film’s tone and with the serious issues at hand but they eventually feel like appropriate manifestations of Adam’s mental state.

Charlie Plummer showed in the superb Lean on Pete that he’s one of the finest young actors around today and here he movingly captures the anguish and bitterness but also touching optimism of someone afflicted with a situation seemingly beyond their control.  He makes Charlie someone we care about even if we don’t always like the way he behaves toward others. As Maya, Taylor Russell (who plays Judy in the Lost in Space reboot) is amusingly forthright  but also touchingly vulnerable in the way she tries to deal with the issues in her life.  Refreshingly, for a teen-oriented film this movie provides well-rounded roles for the parents with Molly Parker convincing as a mother desperate to give her son a safe and normal life but occasionally proving too intrusive and Walton Goggins quietly impressive as the would-be step dad whom Charlie resents.  There’s also a wonderful turn by Andy Garcia as the straight-talking but genuinely compassionate priest to whom Adam turns for counsel.

With its smart and perceptive script, this film works as a character piece and a comedy-tinged drama but more importantly it shows that one of the worst symptoms of mental illness is the lack of social understanding and the isolation this imposes on those affected.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Teen comedy-drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Thor Freudenthal.

Release date: 26th Nov 2020.

Running time: 111 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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