“Words on Bathroom Walls” – Adam (Charlie Plummer) is halfway through his high school senior year, so graduation is close.
He should have the world at his feet, but a one-two-punch – emerging from a massive, unpredictable jungle, otherwise known as life – delivers a couple of near-crippling blows.
First, his dad – with little warning or on-screen fanfare – leaves Adam and his mom Beth (Molly Parker). Since Adam is taking the news better than his mother, he finds the space to prepare meals for their suddenly smaller family, as his “contribution to their underdog story.”
It turns out that he has a knack for cooking, and this young home-chef holds aspirations for culinary school someday soon, but the second setback has other plans. After his dad left, an insidious, unwanted guest arrives. Adam develops schizophrenia, a mysterious disorder that causes him to hear voices and see hallucinations. A teen’s years are already challenging to navigate, but add declarations and images that no one else can perceive, and his internal compass is compromised. Adam now copes with a cerebral five-alarm inferno that no firefighter can extinguish. There’s no cure, and he’s just a 17-year-old kid.
Young adult films sometimes address devastating afflictions, including depression, alcoholism, and cancer, but other than perhaps “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), more severe forms of mental illness – like schizophrenia – seem like new territory, at least to this critic.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” director Thor Freudenthal and screenwriter Nick Naveda are blazing a trail here. Sure, the movie – based on Julia Watson’s novel – repeats some familiar patterns, but the narrative has educational value and taps into raw emotions, at least for anyone who holds on to any degrees of self-doubt.
Plummer (“Lean on Pete” (2017)) brings (more than) credible energy to Adam. He’s instantly believable as a vulnerable, semi-insecure young man who doesn’t need another stumbling block while pursuing personal glory and preserving a partial foundation for his supportive, caring mama. Freudenthal devotes effective manifestations/special effects to communicate Adam’s condition, including a shadowy presence that acts like The Smoke Monster from “Lost” (2004 – 2010). Three guides also tag along and give advice, all with distinct personas: a baseball bat-wielding enforcer (Lobo Sebastian), a loner (Devon Bostick) who notices every pretty girl within eyeshot, and a bohemian (AnnaSophia Robb).
This triad does not tender malice. Still, their company is not exactly helping Adam’s teenager experience, especially when reaching out to classmates. Credit Plummer for engendering empathy for his character, and Freudenthal truly pulls the right levers to draw this protagonist’s headspace into our universe.
Adam’s journey involves not only his personal growth, but also a chance at romance. Enter Maya (Taylor Russell), the valedictorian who offers tutoring assistance and a connection that could lead to more. Her predictable arc doesn’t require Cliff Notes, but Russell (“Waves” (2019)) conveys plenty of depth, especially Maya’s internal churn that she suppresses most of the time.
The narrative delves further into a rarely-explored relationship topic that taps into exposed feelings for the teens and the audience. Admittedly, a critical, sentimental moment in the third act stretches some boundaries that seem implausible, but there’s nothing wrong with knowingly shelving some disbelief. Add a welcome pair of supporting roles from Andy Garcia and Walton Goggins, and “Words on Bathroom Walls” is a satisfying picture. Goggins usually plays sinister villains, so the fact that his character doesn’t try to murder someone is an appreciated treat, and all the performances plus the challenging material are cinematic gifts.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Roadside Attractions; Trailer credits: FRESH Movie Trailers