Words on Bathroom Walls

Words on Bathroom Walls (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is a moment in “Words on Bathroom Walls” when I knew it is a superior film about mental illness. Yet this exact point in time is only tangentially related to our protagonist, Adam (Charlie Plummer), having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Instead, the focus is on Maya (Taylor Russell), a classmate and private tutor whom Adam has developed romantic feelings for, entering her home and realizing that her secret—that she comes from a poor family and that she lives in a small house in a bad neighborhood—is out. The camera remains still as we capture her wrestle with utter humiliation but at the same time she must retain her composure because a boy she really likes is standing a few feet away. This moment is special because it is a rare instance in which we are taken out of Adam’s head… yet Maya’s situation is strongly connected to Adam’s own struggle as a young person who is deeply ashamed of something that he cannot control.

Based on the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the screenplay by Nick Naveda is peppered with disarming honesty, from the way Adam sees himself, how people who love and care about Adam sees him, to how Adam perceives how others might see him. It is a complicated romantic drama, certainly mature especially given its target audience (late teens), and I admired its willingness to challenge our notions about the sub-genre: syrupy, unrealistic, pregnant with easy answers. Notice that the point is never about delivering a sad or tear-jerker moment; it is required that we have an appreciation of the tricky why’s and how’s, that people are in conflict—sometimes with themselves—because they are human. And being human comes with certain rules or expectations, especially in regard to the concept of normality or social belongingness.

Plummer proves once again he is one of the best performers of his generation. Those familiar with his work already know he excels in dramatic pictures, but I say this role is different for him. In his prior films (“King Jack,” “Lean on Pete,” “The Clovehitch Killer”—intimate dramas one way or another), his characters are thoughtful in a quiet way. Pauses between words, subtle changes in the eyes, and body language communicate plenty. In this picture, his character is thoughtful in a verbal way. Through the way he outwardly expresses Adam’s thoughts and longings, Plummer makes us care for Adam as if he’s a friend we’ve known since childhood. And so when the inevitable psychotic episodes occur, we can discern between the hopeful young man who dreams of becoming a chef and the mental illness of which there is no cure.

CGI is employed at times to create a portrait of Adam’s visual hallucinations, the kind that you might encounter in superhero flicks where glass come flying at the audience and the like. Yet ostentatious visual effects do not get in the way of telling this tale because of Thor Freudenthal’s assured direction; he never forgets that this is a story of a person who has schizophrenia and so every decision, however wild or—yes—humorous (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian play visual hallucinations with distinct personalities), must circle back to to the subject’s painful personal experiences. What results is a confident and heartfelt work that inspires viewers to consider, “Is this how it might be like to have schizophrenia?” In addition, the material is not afraid of staring into dark corners, of acknowledging the reality that, according to “Schizophrenia Research,” suicide rate among people with schizophrenia spectrum disorders is one hundred seventy times higher than the general population.

I admired “Words on Bathroom Walls” because you can feel its intention to provide a complete picture of schizophrenia: its positive and negative symptoms; the stigma that comes with it as a concept and when someone is diagnosed; the effects of standard medication and experimental drugs. Do not expect a clear-cut story of love swooping in to save the day. Love is but one aspect. And because this is so, sometimes this alone may not be enough. Illness, wellness, hope. This film shows, quite astutely, there is no linear trajectory; they’re intertwined.

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