I don’t know anyone diagnosed with schizophrenia, but if it’s anything like its visualization in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” it is the quintessence of terror.
Yes, this adaptation of Julia Walton’s YA novel is a warm and fuzzy teen romance, and yes, some of the manifestations of the hero’s illness have more than a hint of “cute” about them. The film is annoyingly burdened with far too much voice over narration.
Maybe that suits someone who’s living and struggling far too much inside his own head. But the Golden Rule of Cinema is “Show us, don’t tell us” and in the name of all that’s holy, don’t narrate our ears off.
But the madness that descends upon Adam, winsomely played by Charlie Plummer ( “All the Money in the World”) would terrify anyone — swirling inky black smoke covering his surroundings, black bile oozing down windows, chem lab class turning into gravity-defying chaos, and every open door an opportunity for The Voice of Your Doom calling to Adam.
His mental safety net is a further manifestation of his condition. He has gang-banger “body guards” (led by Lobo Sebastian, good) in track suits, wielding baseball bats in his mental defense. A raging libido shows up in the bathrobe and underwear clad stoner Lothario (Devon Bostick) full of advice to the hormonal.
And then there’s the real person from the school he’s kicked out of in the film’s opening scenes. AnnaSophia Robb becomes his blonde, romantic ideal, airy fairy sensitive, a dancing hippy vision (“Dalai Lama meets Coachella”) in his hallucinations.
Yeah, all that falls under “cute.” But director Thor Fredenthal (A “Percy Jackson,” a “Wimpy Kid”) and Plummer do a splendid job of maintaining the tension that someone barely clinging to his sanity lives under. This may be a lightweight primer on learning about your illness, struggling with school and family and yet finding love in the middle of all this. But “Words on Bathroom Walls” never lets us forget the “Good Will Hunting moment” in such a life, under such mental pressure, is terrifying.
Stressed but eternally hopeful Mom (Molly Parker) and the new man in her life (Walton Goggins, playing with our expectations, cast against “type”) get “treatment resistant” Adam into a Catholic School and onto an experimental new drug.
Everybody, even a reluctant Adam, is all-in on a last chance senior year, drugged up so that he can get through the day, desperate to graduate so that he can go to culinary school in the fall. Yeah, “stepdad” is a little worried about the kid having access to knives.
Only headmistress Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) is in on Adam’s secret. But she’ll be watching for signs he’s losing it. His parents are in contact with the shrink he’s always talking to (whom we never see or hear). If he can just make it through the year…
Maybe the cutest, smartest girl in school figures into that. Maya (Taylor Russell) is a brutally blunt valedictorian pre-accepted at Duke, running “side hustles” doing rich private school kids’ homework. Adam? He needs tutoring from “the Bernie Madoff of academic fraud.”
And as they hit it off, we wonder, when’s our lad going to tell her his secret? When will we find out hers? And how long before the tightrope of Adam’s existence droops under the weight and he loses it?
The script is a catalog of mental illness similes, all of them revealed in voice-over. “You entire waking life is an escape room with no exit.” It’s “like having a nightmare while I’m awake.”
The romance is understated, slow, with many missteps mixed in with flippant banter. Food and cooking are blended in, as that figures into Adam’s hopes and his greatest fears.
A warm subtext arrives in Adam’s interactions with this new religion that the school exposes him to, all in the confessional with the priest (a twinkling Andy Garcia), who shrugs off the agnostic who sits down and cracks that “the only person who can’t reject you is Jesus, right?”
Whatever precious touches emerge, I have to say “Words on Bathroom Walls” works. The performances are stellar and earn the emotional connection we feel with the characters. The lighter touches — Garcia, Bostick and especially Robb (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), going all Woodstock Stevie Nicks — are a delight.
The fact that this sweet picture is one of the few to reopen cinemas mid-pandemic means it could get a little extra attention. Seeing as how Roadside Attractions, the Witness Protection Program of Film Distribution is releasing it, it can use all the help it can get.
MPAA Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language and smoking
Cast: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Devon Bostick, Molly Parker, Lobo Sebastian, Beth Grant, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb and Andy Garcia
Credits: Directed by Thor Freudenthal, script by Nick Naveda, based on the Julia Walton novel. An LD Entertainment film, a Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:51