Updated: Aug 28, 2020
I was able to watch this film in the safety of my home thanks to getting an online screener link from the studio, a privilege many do not get. Considering the current coronavirus pandemic and the dangers it still presents, I do not endorse you returning to movie theaters at this time.
Thor Freudenthal's adaptation of a YA novel by Julia Walton captures something a few films about mental illness are capable of. The film helps viewers to understand an experience of schizophrenia through specific details such as the hard choice of medicating to be normal versus losing your ability to execute a creative passion. The film falters in that it sticks to a formulaic structure that demands a big happy ending but that doesn't take away from the good in Word on Bathroom Walls.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) suffers from schizophrenia. His true passion is cooking and he plans on culinary school if he can get through high school. Early on a powerful scene in a science class shows us how terrible Adam's condition is. He burns a fellow classmate and soon is off to a new school. His mother Beth (Molly Parker) wants to find anything that will help her son. He is put on an experimental drug that soon begins to quiet his voices. The voices are visualized as full-blown characters that surround him at times. There is the cocky player (Devon Bostick), a hippy girl who is very supportive (Anna Sophia Robb), and a rough-edged bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian). All three can be loud enough to overtake Adam.
These characters are a bit written and simplified so it is great that there is another presence that remains unknown. A dark voice brings out the worst qualities of self-doubt and destruction in Adam. It is this force in Adam's mind that forces him to a new school where he meets Maya (Taylor Russell). For the first time, Adam wants to get better to be able to be around her. It is to the film's credit that this process isn't as simple as taking pills.
Plummer and Russell are both great. Plummer gives Adam many layers, making this portrait of mental illness feel empathetic and real. Russell has a terrific screen presence and is very charming here. The two have believable chemistry. Walton Goggins as Beth's partner and Andy Garcia as a priest both shine here as well and bring depth to their supporting characters.
Words on Bathroom Walls succeeds because it feels authentic about how it portrays schizophrenia. There is a sensitivity to the film that works even when the film falters. Its faults are all based around the formulaic beats it feels it needs to hit. It is a shame the film didn't trust how unique its content is. The film had a great effect on me at times. Check this one out.