Synopsis: A teenager coping with paranoid schizophrenia hopes his new experimental drug treatment will help him navigate high school and the outside world.
Stars: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant, Andy García,
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: History has not been kind to mental illness or those that have struggled with it and that’s largely due to a lack of information. We are often scared of what we don’t know or don’t understand. So many of the disorders that are now easily diagnosed were previously unidentifiable to those outside of a certain circle of doctors and researchers. Many suffered and were shut away in asylums when they could have received treatment and its with the advancement of science, medications, and plain old discussion that have helped to bring some normalcy to what is often not perceived as typical normal behavior.
There’s a certain trepidation I have when I hear a movie dealing with teen mental illness is coming out because I don’t want it to be given a glossy veneer nor do I want it to be a doom and gloom scare affair. There needs to be a nice balance that encourages those who may be dealing with a condition to speak to someone without fear of being mocked or made to feel less-than. I wasn’t familiar with Julia Walton’s 2017 novel Words on Bathroom Walls that screenwriter Nick Naveda has adapted into the new feature film but went in knowing it was going to be tackling a big issue in the area of mental health: schizophrenia. A number of movies have played the “voices in my head” episodes of psychosis for laughs or as plot devices that further elements of a larger idea but here was a film whose main character spends nearly the entire film finding ways to cope with competing personalities that only he can hear and see.
High school is already a hormone-laced, emotionally confusing time for the average teenager but senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World) is also dealing with the presence of three distinct personalities that began as voices in his head and now pop up regularly. Hippie Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, The Way, Way Back) appeals to Adam’s more serene side while horndog Joaquin (Devon Bostick, Tuscaloosa) hangs around waiting for the excitement to begin. It’s when The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian, The Mule) gets riled up that things go south though because that signals an episode Adam won’t be able to control is about to take over. Manifesting in the filmworld as black tendrils of smoke or another CGI effect of questionable quality that interferes with Adam’s ability to go about his day, these episodes make an already demanding schedule that much more difficult.
After losing it and injuring a student at his last school, Adam transfers to a parochial academy for his final year in the hopes of getting his diploma and staring culinary school and starting his dream career as a chef. His single mom Beth (Molly Parker, The 9th Life of Louis Drax) wants that for him too, but has her reservations after numerous medical trials have failed to stop his manic episodes from happening. It’s during this time he meets the clever Maya (Taylor Russell, Waves, Escape Room), a fellow senior who, in addition to a nice side business of selling papers and other assorted contraband to her wealthy classmates, is the valedictorian of their class. Initially resistant to her efforts to peel off his guarded layers for fear she’d uncover his secret, it’s when he finds out certain truths about her own life that he changes direction and opens his heart to her in the process. With a new man (Walton Goggins, Them That Follow) in his mom’s life and a stern nun (Beth Grant, Flatliners) keeping an eye on him at school, Adam starts a final trial of an experimental drug which silences the voices but may have other consequences that could make the trade-off not worth it in the end.
Director Thor Freudenthal’s feature film representation has largely been in movies aimed at younger audiences (though his television work is definitely more on the violent/dramatic adult side) so he clearly has an established comfort level working with young actors but this represents a real step up in the maturity level. It did take a bit for the movie to hook me, though, but I attribute that to an ungainly first act that had trouble finding it’s focus and staying in one place for too long. It’s all exposition to get us to that first meeting between Maya and Adam and that’s when Freudenthal strikes some serious gold. If Plummer is a convincing, if a bit overly earnest lead, when sharing scenes with Parker and Goggins, he’s made exponentially better when paired with Russell’s sensitive and intuitive classmate and potential love interest. As she’s done with her galvanizing performance in Waves and even in cheesy schlock like Escape Room, Russell makes bold choices that are often unexpected, never uninteresting. I also quite liked Parker, an actress that seems to have continued to work steadily in well-reviewed but easy to forget roles…she just needs that one key movie to get her to that next level. I can’t forget to mention Andy Garcia (Jennifer 8) as a priest Adam has a convivial relationship with where matters of faith don’t enter in. Garcia’s brief supporting performance is, ahem, spirited and memorable.
Running far too long and clocking in at nearly two hours, I’m still not sure I came out the other side more well-educated to the chronic illness but I found myself watching in appreciation for the frankness in the way the movie handles the final act. It’s definitely following a long-standing formula set by the high-school movie gods in which normal societal rules don’t apply if you just have to stand up and make a speech, but Words on Bathroom Walls winds up translating from the walls of literature to the screen with a comfort and a qualified quality. Like another emotional YA film releasing today, Chemical Hearts, it stands in solidarity with those that might need extra support for reasons we may not totally understand.