Movie review: Teen romance ‘Words on Bathroom Walls’ tackles mental illness
There’s a wrenching moment in the teen romance “Words on Bathroom Walls” in which a character draws a stark, shameful contrast between how society treats a child with cancer and one with a mental disorder like schizophrenia. Why, he asks, do we allow the former to “make a wish,” while “wishing” away the latter? It’s an excellent point, well worth chewing on.
The movie, directed by Thor Freudenthal (attempting something far meatier than his “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”), certainly flirts with such notions, but struggles mightily to commit. Instead, he and writer Nick Naveda (adapting Julia Walton’s YA novel) regularly pull punches and create massive tonal faux pas by pinching parts of “Inside Out” and blending them with elements of “Black Swan.” It’s as schizo as the main character played superbly by “Lean on Pete’s” Charlie Plummer.
His Adam, a high school senior, counts himself among the countless teenagers across the world harboring a disease that immediately classifies them as a pariah if their secret is exposed. Unfortunately, Adam outs himself, when he experiences one of his “episodes” in the middle of chemistry class. He hears voices, sees things and panics. And in the process spills a beaker of acid on the arm of his lab partner. Instead of offering help, the school expels him, and this is just the first of the slights that will befall him over the course of a movie aiming admirably to draw attention to how backward our society has remained on issues of mental illness.
Without exception, these scenes are powerful and effective in damning our antiquated attitudes. But the film consistently undercuts their impact by resorting to gimmicks, most notably a quintet of “friends” who seem to have walked in off a cel from “Inside Out.” There’s Anger, Compassion, Lothario (in silk boxers, always!) and so on. They’re played by the likes of AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick and Lobo Sebastian. And, boy, are they annoying, especially when they’re presented as a quirky form of comic relief fitfully undercutting the intended drama. What the heck?
It’s a shame, too, because if you excise that serendipitousness you’ve got a solid teen tale of first love between kids hiding behind painful facades: A schizophrenic pretending to be normal and an impoverished girl putting on airs of wealth and privilege. It’s kismet how Plummer’s Adam and Taylor Russell’s Maya are drawn like a magnet, two liars with a hidden truth they’re too needlessly embarrassed to admit. It’s a joy to watch them gradually let down their guards and find peace in each other’s arms.
Equally strong is Adam’s frayed relationship with his mother (the great Molly Parker) and his new stepfather (Walton Goggins in a rare tender role), whom he fears wants him out of the way to facilitate a more normal household with the couple’s new baby on the way. Here, too, are real, honest emotions and it’s genuinely affecting. So WHY the Greek chorus of “Inside Out” refugees? It’s maddening, and it pretty much wrecks the movie. I get it, Freudenthal wants us to see what Adam is seeing, but can’t our imaginations do a much better job?
So why am I recommending “Words on Bathroom Walls” (the title a reference to hate graffiti penned in school restrooms), two reasons: Plummer and Russell. The fast-rising stars are sensational together, front loaded with tons of charm and nuance. There’s both chemistry and a connection between them that transfers vividly to the screen, especially Plummer, who elicits empathy for his character while also making the case of how urgently we need to start treating mental illness like every other medical disorder. His Adam isn’t crazy; just misunderstood and neglected. Like every other person suffering from chronic depression to bi-polar disorder and beyond, he needs our love and sympathy. And it’s high time we gave it.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Words on Bathroom Walls”
Cast includes Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Andy Garcia, AnnaSophia Robb and Beth Grant. At Hingham Shipyward Cinemas and AMC Braintree and available for streaming on all platforms beginning Aug. 21.
(PG-13 for mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language and smoking)