Problems with which teenagers have to deal in movies are typically limited to schoolwork, parents, friends, romantic relationships, sex, and getting into college. Some venture out into weightier territory, but few make that the basis for the entire story. That’s not the case with Words on Bathroom Walls, which has its main character deal with a disorder that is rarely talked about in such a public manner.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) is a high school senior with a love of cooking who’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When an incident caused by the condition causes him to be expelled from his home school, his mom (Molly Parker) enrolls him at a nearby Catholic high school, where he soon meets Maya (Taylor Russell), who’s on a path toward becoming valedictorian.
Adam’s condition manifests itself in visions, most notably three human hallucinations (AnnaSophia Robb, Lobo Sebastian, and Devon Bostick). To try to keep them at bay and fit in at the new school, Adam gives in to his mom’s wishes to participate in an experimental drug trial. As he and Maya grow closer, Adam struggles to maintain the equilibrium necessary to keep his condition under control.
Directed by Thor Freudenthal and adapted by Nick Naveda from the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the film keeps Adam’s schizophrenia front and center almost every second of the film. Even when they’re not explicitly referencing it, its presence colors Plummer’s performance as he shows the effort that it takes to try to act “normal.”
Still, the film is far from non-stop seriousness. Thanks to the attention that must be paid to his condition, the romance between Adam and Maya is given plenty of time to develop. The scenes they share are almost always fun, interesting, and involving more than just how they feel about each other. Where some films try to force a bond between two characters, this one goes about it in a more natural manner.
There are some elements that don’t work as well, most notably Adam’s tension-filled relationship with his mom’s boyfriend, Paul (Walton Goggins). While kids and new boyfriends not getting along is a tried-and-true dramatic device, their divide never seems to make sense in the context of the story. Also, scenes in which Adam talks to the camera that are ostensibly set in a psychologist’s office are a convenient way to get inside his head, but otherwise pay few dividends.
Plummer is a great actor who never tries to oversell Adam’s schizophrenia. Where other actors might have gone over-the-top, he keeps his performance mostly subtle. Russell, who impressed mightily in 2019’s Waves, is equally good here thanks to her effervescence and supportive acting. Parker, Goggins, Robb, Sebastian, and Bostick each bring something interesting to their roles that make their scenes eminently watchable.
The only way to destigmatize a confusing condition like schizophrenia is to talk about it, and Words on Bathroom Walls does as good a job as could be expected from a mainstream movie at exploring its effects. Add in fantastic performances across the board, and you have a film that rises above normal teenage fare.
Words on Bathroom Walls opened in theaters on August 21. It is one of the first films to do so since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.