James Jay Edwards

Words on Bathroom Walls Tackles Mental Illness Just Heavily Enough for Its Ya Audience

(Words on Bathroom Walls, Photo by Jacob Yakob, Courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

James Jay Edwards reviews Words on Bathroom Walls, a movie adapted from the YA novel and directed by Thor Freudenthal. (LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)


Remember a couple weeks back when we talked about how Young Adult novels had a built in audience with Chemical Hearts? We’ve got another example of that now, only Words on Bathroom Walls is a much more effective movie.

Words on Bathroom Walls is about a young man named Adam (Charlie Plummer from Lean on Pete and All the Money in the World) who, halfway through his senior year of high school, is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Thanks to a violent psychotic incident in his chemistry class, Adam is expelled and sent to a catholic high school for the rest of the term. While there, he begins taking an experimental drug that seems to help control the voices in his head. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with his tutor, a sharp-witted young woman named Maya (Lost in Space’s Taylor Russell). Things seem to be looking up for Adam, but when his meds start interfering with the things he loves, he secretly goes off of them. With predictable (and some unpredictable) results.


(Words on Bathroom Walls, theatrical release poster, Courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Based on the Young Adult novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the screenplay was written by Nick Naveda (Say You Will) and directed by Thor Freudenthal (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Diary of a Wimpy Kid). It’s a more standard narrative than the book, which is written as a series of diary entries, so, on the surface, it seems like just another teen-in-crisis movie. But Freudenthal is a more creative filmmaker than that.

For better or worse, the voices that Adam hears in his head are presented as separate characters with personalities all their own. There’s a typically horny teenage boy (Tuscaloosa’s Devon Bostick), who is probably closest to Adam’s true subconscious. There’s a peaceful-and-serene hippy (AnnaSophia Robb from Soul Surfer) for when Adam wants to mellow out. And there’s the Bodyguard (The Mule’s Lobo Sebastian), a baseball bat-wielding maniac who, along with a gang of similar individuals, takes over when Adam feels threatened (hence the “psychotic incidents”). Giving real identities to Adam’s visions forces the audience to also take them seriously, no matter how dark they get. And having them wither and fade as his medication takes effect illustrates how in control of his life Adam can really be with the right help.


(Words on Bathroom Walls, Photo by Jacob Yakob, Courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Whether or not this is how those who suffer from schizophrenia actually perceive the voices they hear is up for debate, but as a cinematic tool it’s a wonderful way of showing the inner workings of Adam’s mind. Cinema is a visual medium, and Freudenthal manages to put faces to the voices in Adam’s head with great success.

Julia Walton’s diary entry motif is not completely abandoned by Naveda and Freudenthal, though. Adam breaks the fourth wall and explains his thoughts and feelings to the audience frequently, but instead of coming off as private journal moments, it’s more like he’s using the viewer as a therapist. He’s giving insight into his world, but he’s also talking himself through the things in his head. And it’s not just spoon-fed exposition. It’s laying out a roadmap.


(Words on Bathroom Walls, Photo by Jacob Yakob, Courtesy LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Adam’s mental illness is, of course, the hook to Words on Bathroom Walls. Without it, it’s just another teenage-boy-meets-teenage-girl movie. And sure, there are times when the sense of Adam fighting through his demons seems to ring false. But Adam’s suffering, and the lengths to which those around him will go to help him, not just Maya, but his parents (played wonderfully by Kissed’s Molly Parker and The Hateful Eight’s Walton Goggins), and even a priest at the school (Andy Garcia from The Godfather: Part III), is touching, even to the point where the audience turns on Adam for not seeing how much he needs their support. A classic character flaw for a protagonist, and in the end, it helps the audience get on board with him.

Words on Bathroom Walls is a heavy movie. It’s nothing that its Young Adult target audience can’t handle, but “Old” Adults may just enjoy it as well if they give it a shot. If any movie about teenage mental illness can be entertaining, that movie is Words on Bathroom Walls.



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