Based on Julia Walton’s novel of the same name, “Words on Bathroom Walls” is a coming-of-age film about a high school senior named Adam (Charlie Plummer, “Looking for Alaska”) who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. After being expelled due to a psychotic break, Adam undergoes a medical trial to treat his illness and transfers to a new private high school. There, he meets Maya (Taylor Russell, “Waves”), the high-achieving soon-to-be valedictorian who agrees to tutor Adam as he struggles to keep his grades up. He tries to maintain a happy and carefree exterior as he becomes closer to Maya, but this effort gets increasingly difficult as his mental health grows worse and worse.
If not for its compassionate portrayal of Adam, a romantic coming-of-age film centered around schizophrenia might not have worked. But director Thor Freudenthal (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) taps into something meaningful. Neither Adam nor schizophrenia is ever demonized, a rare find in the film industry. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” for example, was heavily criticized for its portrayal of dissociative identity disorder. This is not a singular example — mental illnesses are often vilified and used as plot devices in horror films. Part of the goal in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” though, is to show schizophrenia (and mental illness in general) as something that real people are constantly living with and battling.
In Words on Bathroom Walls,” Adam is not defined by his diagnosis, although it obviously causes a lot of changes in his life. He has a very distinctive personality, which includes a strong passion for cooking and ambitions to become a chef. He has goals, and we follow him as he learns how to live with his disorder in order to achieve them. Even if the portrayal isn’t perfect, it is refreshing to see a story of mental illness told in a caring way. Perhaps the bar is low, but this film surpasses it nonetheless.
The film makes good use of the medium to show some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, specifically visual and auditory hallucinations — a deep and threatening voice tells Adam that everything he fears about himself is true, and a black fog swarms around and clogs his vision in times of extreme anxiety. It is highly distressing — even more so when the camera cuts to what’s really happening, showing that these vivid and disturbing images are wholly not real.
The film also breaks the fourth wall. Adam’s sessions in therapy are monologues delivered entirely to the camera – we never see the therapist. In a sense, we are the therapist. Scenes set in therapy are woven throughout the film, and the speeches made directly to the camera allow the audience to get inside Adam’s head. Although these monologues feel a bit heavy-handed, they ultimately express Adam’s anger and frustration and make effective points about how unfairly this world treats people with mental illnesses.
When the film ends, things feel a little too perfect; it is, after all, a romantic coming-of-age film. Perhaps another movie could have shown more deeply some of the realities that might come with being in a relationship with someone who has schizophrenia. Still, in an industry that loves to exploit mental illness for shock value, “Words on Bathroom Walls” is refreshing in its empathetic representation of schizophrenia.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.