Words on Bathroom Walls is the first film I saw after the Cinemark theater near me re-opened in the last few weeks of August, following the five and a half month closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And I can’t tell you to see it right now in the theater, even though everything is pretty safe for the most part. Moviegoers still have concerns I can’t personally argue regarding their own safety surrounding a virus that isn’t going anywhere. But I certainly hope you circle back around to this film at some point, because it’s one of those tiny, remarkable films that reminded me why I love going to the movies so much.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) is a high school senior who has noticed something weird over the last few years – he has been hearing voices and having increasingly terrifying hallucinations of things that obviously aren’t there. After an incident in science class, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia and is forced to transfer to a Catholic school. He just wants to get through this time before he can go to culinary school in the fall. At his new school, he meets Maya (Taylor Russell), a straight-laced classmate who has some secrets of her own. They form a bond, and possibly a romance as Adam struggles to adjust to life on a new medication, as he begins to find his own normal.
Words on Bathroom Walls is one of those rare teen coming-of-age movies that does almost everything exactly right. It’s funny, emotional, heartfelt, and somehow never feels maudlin. It’s advertised as a teen romance in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars, but that’s really the secondary story. This is mainly a film about a young man struggling to cope with his mental illness and the day-to-day struggles that brings. And Bathroom Walls is compassionate, wise and handles the subject of mental illness with sensitivity and insight.
While it may have wisdom and charm to spare, the real reason to see this film is Charlie Plummer’s performance. I remember being impressed by his performance in the 2017 indie Lean on Pete, but I think this is even better work. He seems to completely understand where this character is coming from but also how important it is to represent this character’s journey in the right way. He delivers a monologue at one point about why nobody wants to help people with schizophrenia, and the social stigma of the disease that reminded me of a similar speech Julianne Moore has in the movie Still Alice, a film about a 50-year-old woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both are moments that come out of nowhere and punch you in the gut, but it’s beyond impressive that Plummer can land this kind of moment so strongly this early in his career. I definitely look forward to what he does next.
Taylor Russell, previously seen in last year’s Waves, is quite good as Maya, the plucky and charming classmate who takes an interest in Adam. While Maya is a three-dimensional character that has her own high and low points, Russell seems to understand that Maya isn’t the most important aspect of this story and this is not a movie about mental illness where suddenly the protagonist just meets the right love interest and every problem goes away. This story is more nuanced than that, and everyone seems to understand why. Well, everyone except for the marketing team.
Thor Freudenthal directed this, and his credits include films like Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. What I’m saying is absolutely nothing about his previous work suggests he has a film this good in him, especially since this doesn’t feel like it was directed by just anyone. There’s a vision and cinematic depth to Adam’s hallucinations that illustrate his struggle in a really interesting way, and it feels very deft and perceptive. First-time feature screenwriter Nick Naveda adapted this from Julia Walton’s YA novel of the same name, which I haven’t read yet. I did, however, go to my phone’s Amazon app while the end credits were rolling to get myself a copy.
In conclusion, Words on Bathroom Walls doesn’t really rewrite the teen coming-of-age movie rules, it just does everything in the most lovely and perceptive way. If I had one complaint, I would say the ending kind of takes the easy way out, but it’s important for a story like this to send a message of hope. This is the kind of film that could be deeply meaningful for audiences of many generations, and it’s absolutely worth seeing. Again, I can’t tell you to run out to the theater right this very second to see it, but if we were living in non-pandemic times, I would be.