Words on Bathroom Walls barely scratches the surface of what schizophrenia looks and feels like, but it’s still an enjoyable rom-com with charismatic leads.
When you’re about to watch a film that revolves around mental health, there are certain things you can expect. From inventive depictions of the “voices in the character’s head” and creative side effects of medication to the rebellious act of going off these meds and the inevitable moment of clarity that comes from accepting other people’s help, films have gotten us used to a very specific portrayal of mental illness, with a narrative arc that always seems to follow the same stages. A troubled but well-meaning individual soon loses control over a condition they didn’t ask for, finding little understanding from family and friends and struggling to stay afloat in a world that doesn’t seem to have room for them, until they embark on a journey of self-discovery and eventually find love and understanding in the most unexpected places.
Based on Julia Walton’s young adult novel with the same name and directed by Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Words on Bathroom Walls follows the same pattern. The film revolves around a likeable, introspective teenager (Adam, played by Charlie Plummer) whose dreams of becoming a chef are threatened by schizophrenic hallucinations that come in the form of a combination of swirling, ink-like smoke appearing into thin air and three fully formed human beings, each with their own name, personality and a long list of bad habits.
Since our witty protagonist is also a young adult, the “dark and twisty places” (we miss you, Grey’s Anatomy) inside his head are joined by a whole new list of very normal teenage problems that make his life even harder. The main conflict of the film arises from Adam’s expulsion halfway through his senior year, following an incident in chemistry class provoked by his hallucinations. At the same time, an added dose of anxiety comes from a mother who doesn’t know how to be there for him, a controlling stepfather whose only solution to Adam’s condition is to hide all the knives from his reach, and the new, Catholic school he’s sent to, which is managed by a very strict nun and where he doesn’t exactly fit in. When he meets outspoken, intelligent Maya (Taylor Russell), a connection instantly sparks between them that makes it even harder for Adam to keep his condition hidden, but that also marks the beginning of a new journey of self-investigation and acceptance for our relatable protagonist.
Words on Bathroom Walls works both as a coming of age drama and as a rom-com. As a coming-of-age drama, it successfully presents us with a believable, intelligent young protagonist who grows to become a better, more adult version of himself by embracing his own flaws and learning how to rely on others. As a rom-com, it hits all the right chords with younger audiences: not only does its screenplay reflect the format of the novel, with Adam’s written journal entries transposed to the screen as an ongoing dialogue with a psychiatrist we never get to see, but Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell have enough chemistry to make their love story not only believable, but also a real pleasure to watch.
The film is both charming and enjoyable, with impressively edited scenes that portray Adam’s hallucinations in an aesthetically pleasing way. At the same time, Words on Bathroom Walls also feels like a missed opportunity for a depiction of schizophrenia that barely scratches the surface, and an attempt to tackle meaningful issues that is only partially successful. In fact, the film had the potential to address a multitude of universal issues, such as how difficult it is for family and friends to understand how to be supportive to a mentally ill person, or how hard it is to trust yourself and others – let alone be loved by them – when you “can’t see the world the way it is”. Yet, Words on Bathroom Walls fails to approach any of them in a meaningful way, resulting in an enjoyable, light-hearted rom-com that never really reaches its full potential.
In fact, the film’s portrayal of schizophrenia is almost too “polished” and restrained to be believable, with Adam hallucinating three very clichéd human beings (played by AnnaSophia Robb, Lobo Sebastian and a very stylish Devon Bostick) who appear exactly when you expect them to, and often result in an unwanted, somewhat irritating distraction from what you’d actually like to watch – such as an incredibly charismatic Andy Garcia as a very cool priest whose brief appearances are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise often predictable storyline. More importantly, Words on Bathroom Walls is full of thought-provoking, beautifully phrased quotes of the likes of “being ambigious doesn’t make you profound”, “it’s nice to be heard and not just observed” and the ever-present “a person with an illness is not the illness itself”; Yet, the film’s many witty phrases only hint at issues in a vaguely (and, at times, literally) preachy way that prevents the meaning from really coming across, with a cheesy ending that won’t move you nearly as much as you thought it would.
Words on Bathroom Walls is both an enjoyable coming-of-age drama and a successful rom-com, made even more so by Plummer and Russell, who pour the right amount of charm and emotion into two likeable, relatable soulmates. Though the film only begins to approach a multitude of important issues related to schizophrenia, adolescence and growth, it is still an admirable attempt to spark a much-needed dialogue on mental illness, and a well-meaning, often enjoyable young adult drama with charismatic leads and gorgeous visuals.
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