Words on Bathroom Walls
WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A witty teen with dreams of being a chef struggles to balance love and his perfect image after he is diagnosed with a mental illness in his senior year.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I've watched just about every single sad teen movie. And just as I'm sure it's time to give my rusted tear ducts a break finally, Netflix has Words on Bathroom Walls pop up under "New & Popular".
"A witty teen with dreams of being a chef struggles to balance love and his perfect image after he is diagnosed with a mental illness in his senior year." Yup, it sounds like a me movie, only, hear me out, this isn't just another sad teen drama.
Based on the novel of the same name, the film sees Adam (Charlie Plummer) having to navigate life and love after he's diagnosed with schizophrenia – a mental illness that often results in hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking and behaviour. When Adam hallucinates, he sees Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb). "She's sort of Dalai Lama meets Coachella," he explains.
He also sees the Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) and his henchmen – "He's temperamental but loyal". And then there's also Joaquin (Devon Bostick) – "He's like the horny best friend from a 90s teen movie, following you around, saying all your unfiltered thoughts."
But Adam's move to a Catholic school mid-senior year coincides with a new experimental treatment as well as a new love interest, Maya (Taylor Russell), and though it seems to be working at first, the side effects of the drug become too much to take.
I cannot speak on schizophrenia itself, but I will say I've never seen a film that's portrayed mental illness in this way before. As someone who watched 13 Reasons Why right until the bitter end, I can tell you it was refreshing to see mental illness explored in a scary and real way, but not something crippling and damning that could only end in tragedy. There were lighter moments in Adam's hallucinations, though he still dealt with darker thoughts constantly creeping in – but more on that later.
Charlie Plummer gave a nuanced performance as Adam, while the characters in his head couldn't have been cast any better. And though I do feel there wasn't enough diversity in the general casting, Taylor Russell did a fine job as Maya.
On that note, I'd also like to point out that the characters themselves don't fit the usual stereotypes in these kinds of teen dramas. Maya is smart and witty; she isn't just a sidekick or there to drive Adam's narrative but can stand independently. Adam's parents are honest and real; although his mom (Molly Parker) will do everything she can to help her son, she's flawed – she doesn't embody self-sacrifice – while his stepdad (Walton Goggins) breaks the mould completely, resulting in what is probably the most tender, poignant and heartwarming scene in the film for me.
Andy Garcia also stars in the film as Father Patrick, guiding Adam on his journey at his new Catholic school and plays a crucial role in helping him come to terms with who he is. The film itself is not centred around religion, nor does it denounce it in any way. Instead, it highlights an important universal theme that makes this movie worth watching, no matter your conviction.
See, the book and film title originate from a scene in which Adam finds himself in the school bathroom. Above him, written on the wall, are the words: "Jesus loves you." The sentence is scratched out, and the terms "not if you're a homo" is added.
Adam finds the words ironic as he struggles to accept his illness, not as an all-encompassing thing but as a part of who he is. Often within some evangelistic circles, "love" comes with a set of predetermined mandates and rules. But Adam refuses to compromise. "This is who I am," he proclaims.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a tender teen movie that tackles mental illness in a way that is well-thought-out, creative, for lack of a better word, and, I hope, the furthest thing from isolating. In fact, I suspect it'll help a great many people streaming it on Netflix to feel a little less alone. Safe to say, Words on Bathroom Walls is not just another sad teen movie.