Mental illness hasn’t always had the best representation on screen. Whether its exploitative, melodramatic or underplaying its severity, sometimes highlighting a specific illness on camera does more harm than good for breaking down social stigmas. That is why, surprisingly, Words on Bathroom Walls is so good.
Rather than lean into the “fun” or creatively challenging part of portraying schizophrenia as an actor in a tour-de-force performance, this adaptation of Julia Walton’s novel takes us through the journey of one boy’s diagnosis, his management of it and ultimately his learning to live with the disorder, making strong points about unconditional family love and acceptance, whilst providing an ending that’s positive, yet devastatingly true.
Charlie Plummer plays Adam, your average high schooler, who one day has a break down in class, becoming violent and succumbing to his temporary delusions. After being diagnosed, with schizophrenia and attempting a number of treatments to cope, he moves to a new school where he tries to balance his studies and keep his diagnosis a secret from his schoolmates – something that negatively affected him at his previous one. At the new school he meets Maya (Taylor Russell), a superstar student who comes to tutor him, while hiding her own private war, and young love blossoms between the two.
But Words on Bathroom Walls is more than just a teen love story. The interesting part of demonstrating his illness is through a cast of characters only he can see; figures who talk to him and interact with him like they are his best friends. Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb) is the boho Coachella influencer type whose New Age wisdom gives Adam clarity at times, Joaquin (Devon Bostick), his stoner wingman and confidante, and his bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), his loyal protector whom verges on the scary at times. Sure, it’s unlikely that schizophrenia brings out “best friends”, but it takes us inside Adam’s point of view effectively and helps us imagine what suffering with the illness is like.
The film succeeds because it’s a love story, with mental illness a factor of Adam’s characterisation, not the heart of who he is. He tries to live his life normally, though his illness makes him struggle with the relationships with his family, students and friends, and he comes to terms with this part of his life. Ultimately whilst the film succeeds to show that Adam can continue to live normally with the illness, director Thor Freudenthal and screenwriter Nick Navada also remind the audience that this disease is scary. There are times where we worry he may self-harm or harm someone else. His illness is a bit unsettling, which is of course miniscule compared to actually facing it in your daily life. The prom scene is particularly strong in this part for enveloping us in the struggle Adam is facing privately.
Words on Bathroom Walls isn’t and won’t be the be all, end all, of schizophrenia in film. Sure, at times it’s superficial (it’s still a teen film), but it approaches its topic with honesty and without hesitation. It doesn’t veer too much into sentimentality or gloom, but it weighs both parts up equally in a way that feels real. Most of all, it reminds us that mental illness is non-discriminate and that those it affects, deserve support, compassion and love, whomever they may be. It’s a must watch.