Words on Bathroom Walls (dir. Thor Freudenthal, 2020) – Diagnosed with schizophrenia midway through senior year, Adam finds himself struggling to keep it a secret at his new school.
Ostensibly about high school romance, Words on Bathroom Walls defies most expectations of a typical coming-of-age drama, built by misleading posters. The movie instead lends the inundated genre an often shunned perspective, taking on the voice of a young teenager coping with the throes of mental illness.
Charlie Plummer plays Adam, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia in senior year after suffering a psychotic break in chemistry class. Ostracised and eventually expelled, he transfers to an distant Catholic school to complete his diploma, while trying to keep his affliction a secret.
There, he meets Maya (Taylor Russell), the projected valecdictorian who hides some secrets of her own. Their eventual romance doesn’t come easy, especially as he struggles with his medication’s side effects, on top of unexpected changes in his family.
While the pair shares great chemistry, it is Plummer’s performance that stands out for being commendably unsensationalised, avoiding frightful stereotypes that often come with the territory. Empathetically portrayed, Adam endures the distress often in silence and solitude. He isn’t alone, but we constantly feel every bit of the loneliness that he faces.
His insecurities continually manifest as voices in his head, showing up as 3 over-the-top personalities and more unnervingly, an inescapable dark voice that brings about crippling anxiety. Still, he grasps tightly onto the sliver of reality that he sees, even as his omnipresent hallucinations become overwhelming.
Despite the constant ordeal of his psychosis, he is always reminded not to be defined by his illness. He has dreams of the future and faces the same adolescent challenges that others do. The tough years of growing up is tougher still for him. He copes with it all by holding onto a sense of humour, lacing his introspections with unwonted levity.
One may be tempted to accuse the film of taking the delicate subject seriously enough. Yet it is this initial optimism that allows his blunt honesty later to come through stronger than it would have had. When he speaks through the fourth wall, we hear and feel every word of the painful truth – of our willingness to flock to the aid of physically ill children, yet eagerness to make mentally ill children someone else’s problem.
It is a well-written script, though not perfect. Some moments do feel glossy as the movie slips into teen romance tropes, following the familiar steps of unveiled secrets and unconditional forgiveness in the inevitable big speech. Nevertheless, Words on Bathroom Walls remains a hopeful and important narrative on mental illness so rarely made for the teenage audience, deserving more attention that it received.
Through an accessible coming-of-age drama, Words on Bathroom Walls tackles a difficult subject with honesty and compassion, as it is rarely done in the young adult genre.