REVIEW: “Words on Bathroom Walls” tackles schizophrenia with authenticity

Thor Freudenthal’s drama exposes the terror the disorder can bring, combined with moments of hopefulness.

A PG-13 drama film about a teenager with schizophrenia’s love story sounds like a recipe for a tone-deaf disaster. “Words on Bathroom Walls,” however, presents that eccentric story with care and authenticity toward the subject of mental illness. Alongside moments of hopefulness, it portrays the dark and terrifying aspects of living with schizophrenia.

The film was released on Aug. 21, 2020 and directed by Thor Freudenthal, who also directed “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It is adapted from Julia Walton’s novel of the same name and stars Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell, along with Andy Garcia of “The Godfather: Part III” and “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Following an episode of psychosis in science class, high school senior Adam (Charlie Plummer) is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a chronic mental illness that causes auditory and visual hallucinations throughout his daily life. He transfers to a Catholic school and meets a headstrong girl named Maya (Taylor Russell), and the two form a friendship as Adam falls in love with her. He attempts to juggle this relationship and his pursuit to apply for culinary school with the constant battle against schizophrenia, taking medication after medication with failures and harsh side effects along the way. Ultimately, it’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows with no permanent cure in sight.

I would like to preface that without experiencing it firsthand, I am not in any position to judge the film’s accuracy in regard to the realities of schizophrenia. That being said, concerning the topic of mental illness on a broad level, “Words on Bathroom Walls” doesn’t romanticize the disorder; it instead treats it with empathy and honesty.

After watching the movie trailer, I was apprehensive toward the film and fully expected the falling-in-love-cures-mental-illness cliche. Thankfully, the trailer is misleading. The story follows Adam and Maya’s romance alongside Adam’s battle with schizophrenia, showing that they are interconnected, yet it doesn’t crush the disorder’s legitimacy with proclamations of love. And Freudenthal clearly avoids that trap, as Adam says in a voiceover: “Am I gonna tell you that things like love and honesty can cure crazy? No. But it can help.”

Freudenthal’s stroke of genius in the film is Adam’s monologues to his “psychiatrist.” The psychiatrist is never shown on-screen. Instead, Adam talks about his experiences, thoughts and feelings while staring directly at the camera, presumably where the psychiatrist is seated in the film universe. These recurring scenes allow the story to develop on a deeper level as Adam communicates what is in his head in a natural and believable manner. After all, mental illness is primarily an internal and invisible disorder, so an authentic snapshot of it must dive into the brains of those experiencing it firsthand. He speaks his truth, and we all listen, because it is as if he is talking to “us.”

As for the actors’ performances, Plummer and Russell excel at communication without speech. Their small mannerisms and nuanced facial expressions allow both their personalities and true feelings to come to the surface. Even in moments of silence, the audience stays hooked with a strong emotional connection to the characters. Their dialogue and interactions are natural and authentic; a refreshing break from the frequent over-dramatized acting in many teen dramas. Adam and Maya are far from character tropes: Adam switches from dry sarcasm to a nerdy love for cooking, while Maya’s bold attitude belies a tender and compassionate side.

Of course, the audience wants to understand what it feels like to endure schizophrenic hallucinations, and the film’s cinematography goes above and beyond to attain that. Blurred visuals, slanted camera angles and a whirlwind of murmurs and whispers attempt to recreate the terror of psychotic episodes. However accurate they are, they are chilling nonetheless.

But what isn't so chilling are the characters in Adam’s hallucinations. A peaceful hippie, a flirtatious laid-back man and a rough bodyguard wielding a baseball bat are recurring visuals in Adam’s mind, each with their own vibrant personalities. Despite their likeability and comedic value, it seems distasteful to have some of the schizophrenic symptoms portrayed as not-so-bad. However, the film marketed itself more as a drama rather than a documentary, so it’s understandable for Freudenthal to break up the dark topics with a bit of light-hearted banter.

Despite its joyful moments, “Words on Bathroom Walls” successfully deals with a mental illness that should not be taken lightly. The film does not stray away from the scenes of terror and mental burden that the disorder can cause. It’s not sugar-coated, but the film offers just enough hope to get the audience through and leave them with a perpetual sense of empathy for those fighting the battle.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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