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‘Words on Bathroom Walls’ Review: Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell Bolster Gentle Mental Health Drama

Thor Freudenthal's adaptation of Julia Walton's sensitive book tries to split the difference between YA romance and well-being drama.

words on bathroom walls

“Words on Bathroom Walls”

Roadside Attractions/Jacob Yakob

The film release calendar has always played home to serendipitous programming choices, from movies with strangely similar titles hitting at the same time (the early part of 2020 offered films entitled “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Sometimes Always Never,” set to hit release within mere weeks of each other) to features that seem ripped from the same script (as with the infamous 1998 double whammy of “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon”), but this week at the movies offers something with a twist: two new movies with not just closely aligned plots, but nearly identical praise. Two is a trend!

Just yesterday, IndieWire’s review of “Chemical Hearts” arrived with the headline, “Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams Shine in a YA Romance for Extra Sensitive Teens,” and that exact phrasing could be used for the week’s other big screen YA adaptation, Thor Freudenthal’s “Words on Bathroom Walls.” Or, in simpler terms, think of it this way: “Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell Shine in a YA Romance for Extra Sensitive Teens.” Both films are based on popular YA novels that attempt to tackle tough issues — vehicular homicide and mental illness, among other things — and do it within the confines of a genre notoriously beholden to cookie-cutter happy endings.

In some ways, both films succeed, mostly on the strength of their talented young stars and filmmakers willing to push beyond traditional expectations to tell stories far more honest than their genre brethren. Even without the strange release date proximity, “Words on Bathroom Walls” and “Chemical Hearts” would make a fine double feature, all the better to show off the star power of rising young stars and a fresh sensitivity for the kind of stories worthy of a glossy big screen adaptation.

Freudenthal, who previously directed “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” sure knows his way around a respectful film adaptation that doesn’t dumb down its material, while always keeping a keen eye on its target audience. Based on Julia Walton’s novel of the same name and adapted by Nick Naveda, “Words on Bathroom Walls” follows struggling teen Adam (Plummer), who has managed to hide his schizophrenia for so long that he’s almost used to it. His distracted mother (Molly Parker) doesn’t quite know what’s going on, and Adam long ago discovered that focusing on his passion — cooking — helps block out the voices in his head.

“Words on Bathroom Walls”

Roadside Attractions

Until, of course, they don’t. Sensitively rendered for mass consumption, Adam’s various delusions — voices in his head, which give way to no less than three entire hallucinated personalities, all of them at the mercy of a dark fog that rolls in during Adam’s worst moments — become impossible to ignore, culminating in a horrible accident that sees him kicked out of his high school (and its normal social circles). Plummer, so impressive in films like “Lean on Pete” and “Share,” infuses Adam with a wry sense of humor, and while the exposition-laden opening voiceover that introduces all of this winds on for too long, it at least gets us into the mindset of our charming lead character.

So too does the choice to use Adam’s therapy sessions as a way to break the fourth wall and further draw audiences into his life. We never meet Adam’s psychiatrist and they never say a thing: instead, Adam talks directly to the camera, turning the film’s audience into his own personal head-shrinker, investing us in all the ups and downs that come with his illness. And the film does a fine job of driving home that point, that this is an illness, that mental health is just as worthy and real as physical health, even as Adam keenly understands that most people don’t see it that way. That’s why he does his best to mask it, attempting new medication after new medication, even as he proves to be stubbornly “treatment resistant.”

Armed with a new trial med and packed off to a new school (with classmates, just like its stars, who actually look like teens, and a school that actually looks like a real American high school), Adam tries his hardest to make a go of it, if only to please his mother (and her new boyfriend, played by a guarded Walton Goggins) and to ensure he’s able to go to culinary school next fall. Still, this is a YA story, and that means romance, delivered in the form of the whipsmart Maya (Taylor Russell, already one of our most emotionally astute young performers).

Maya may talk like she’s spent too long watching similar teen movies — an early affection for “Never Been Kissed” is played up, and she spouts off bon mots like “I choose not to associate myself with patriarchal norms like prom” with ease — but she’s a truly gifted kid, and she’s got her own reasons for being a little weird. As she and Adam get to know each other, inevitable secrets are revealed and “Words on Bathroom Walls” continues to push past rigid expectations into something a bit more daring.

Eager to split the difference between age-appropriate entertainment and raw honesty, “Words on Bathroom Walls” hedges a bit in its final act, delivering the kind of happy ending only seen in movies — when have you ever seen someone give a dramatic speech that heals everything? — while slyly resisting tying things up in a neat bow. It’s not perfect, but the film makes the necessary assertion that nothing is, and that’s okay, turning an obvious lesson into something with the kind of weight such matters deserve.

Grade: B-

LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “Words on Bathroom Walls” in select theaters on Friday, August 21.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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