Words on Bathroom Walls is emotionally manipulative and easy to mock but has moments that are genuinely affecting.
Broadly speaking, film has not exactly been kind or forgiving in its depiction of mental illness on the big screen. It’s always a tricky endeavor, balancing the innate histrionics of serious mental health issues with a more delicate humanism. Based on the 2017 YA novel by Julia Walton, Words on Bathroom Walls certainly has its heart in the right place, seeking as it does to remind that an individual is much more than the illness from which they suffer. Unfortunately, director Thor Freudenthal goes about this messaging in the most ham-fisted and deeply obvious way possible: Adam (Charlie Plummer), diagnosed with schizophrenia, repeats out loud for two hours, “I am more than my mental illness.” Sometimes the mantra is incorporated into dialogue, as Adam will simply announce it to other characters on-screen; other times it’s featured as part of the film’s voiceover narration; and, at one point, Adam even breaks the fourth wall and makes the declaration directly to the audience. Hell, he even manages to work it into an impromptu graduation speech at film’s end. To be fair, this saturation is likely by design: one does not hire the director of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Hotel for Dogs for his skill at subtlety and elegance. The film’s script, courtesy of Nick Naveda, isn’t much better: Never Been Kissed plays a crucial role here because it is, as one character proclaims, “The greatest film ever made.” That the romantic climax of Words on Bathroom Walls plays out during an outdoor screening of the Drew Barrymore flick, even cribbing its payoff, is some sub-Inception shit that at least provides a bizarre bit of levity.
A film like Words on Bathroom Walls is easy to mock because it is so simple-mindedly earnest. In depicting the troubled and chaotic mind of Adam, Freudenthal employs a lot of cheesy CGI mixed into real-world settings, creating an uncanny valley that is more humorous than threatening. It doesn’t help that Adam’s illness is visually represented by three hallucinations that only he can see: a New Age hippie (AnnaSophia Robb), a horn-dog (Devon Bostick), and a violent enforcer (Lobo Sebastian). While this approach clearly garbles any clinical presentation or serious treatment of the illness, a generous reading could have argued that Adam used these stereotypes as a means to better deal with his illness, compartmentalizing through the use of pop culture clichés. Unfortunately, the film makes no such claim, and instead only uses the manifestations in cutesy and obnoxious ways that undercut moments of honest emotion. There are a lot of missed opportunities, hints of a better treatment of the material that either never existed or was left on the cutting room floor. At one point, Adam discusses how the world views people suffering from a disease like cancer as noble whereas those who suffer from mental illness are too often shunned, left to fester on street corners. This rumination is immediately followed by a sequence in which Adam discovers that his potential love interest, Maya (Taylor Russell), who is both black and Hispanic, lives with her family in borderline poverty following the death of her mother and the failure of any social structures to help them. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, situating mental illness and class struggle as interchangeable challenges in an America that cares little for its suffering, so it’s regrettable that such richly mineable material is abandoned the very same minute that it is presented.
There are other welcome moments of fleeting nuance: the film presents religion in a way that neither glorifies nor condemns it, framing it as nebulous terrain, something to be interpreted and internalized by individual characters (and, by extension, audience members). It’s certainly a surprisingly mature handling from a film that also employs the villain-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché. Plummer isn’t bad in the lead role, committing to an expression of sweetness that is ultimately endearing, while Russell brings a welcome edge to a role that otherwise lacks dimension. But there’s a lot to overcome here, and there’s only so much that be can done in a film that features dialogue such as, “That was quite the dog and pony show down there,” to which another character replies: “I invented dog and pony shows.” That is, of course, empty, lazy nonsense. Words on Bathroom Walls plays like a cross between a John Green text and Donnie Darko, with hyper-literate kids walking through violence-tinged, PG-13-rated hallucinogenic worlds. If that sounds like your type of thing — and if you can forgive the God-awful score courtesy of The Chainsmokers — you could do worse than this deeply manipulative but intermittently affecting bit of melodramatic teenage pulp.