In German director Thor Freudenthal’s (“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”) deeply-moving Words on Bathroom Walls, high-school student Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer, “All the Money in the World”) lives in a world without silence. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, the voices in his head never stop, interfering with his ability to function and endangering his need to graduate from high school and fulfill his dream of going to culinary school. Written by Nick Naveda (“Say You Will”) from a young adult novel of the same name by Julia Walton, the film is framed by Adam’s own narration. Speaking to an unseen and unheard psychiatrist, Adam takes us into his confidence as he talks about his life and its daily challenges. Portrayed as real life characters, the mostly benign voices are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, “The Way Way Back”), a young free-thinking girl, Joaquin (Devon Bostick, “Okja”), a romantically-obsessed teenager, and an unnamed brutish-looking bodyguard who carries a bat and smokes a cigar (Lobo Sebastian, “Inherit the Viper”).
Freudenthal uses special effects when required such as showing the contents of a room swirling around as if caught in a tornado and Adam’s vision of an office being consumed by fire. Though a few scenes indulge in familiar clichés of the genre, for the most part the film exhibits restraint, showing compassion for Adam’s struggles and using humor to lighten the mood. Adam loves to cook and dreams about owning his own restaurant. At first, he dismisses his love for cooking, telling us it’s a distraction but ultimately acknowledges that when he is cooking, “Everything disappears and I get to be exactly who I want to be.”
Unfortunately, a meltdown at a high school chemistry lab that causes injury to another student leads to his expulsion and the decision to enroll him in a strict Catholic school. His acceptance, however, comes with the condition that he maintains an A- average and continues to take his medications which he claims makes him feel worse. When Adam is being interviewed by the nun who heads up his new school (Beth Grant, “Jackie”), we hear him passively give the answers he thinks she wants to hear but his doubts about whether he can meet the imposed conditions are written on his face.
Meeting Maya (Taylor Russell, “Escape Room”), a young student at the new school slated to be the school valedictorian, however, brings a renewed sense of optimism for Adam and his mom (Molly Parker, “Madeline’s Madeline”) and stepdad (Walton Goggins, “Three Christs”). Seeking additional support, Adam finds a shoulder to lean on in Father Patrick (Andy Garcia, “Book Club”). Though he tells the priest that he does not believe in God, Father Patrick’s calming manner and gentle humor allows Adam to feel safe enough to talk about his struggles without fear of reprisal. The relationship between Maya and Adam, both with their own vulnerabilities and secrets to protect, elevates Words on Bathroom Walls to a new level of authenticity, but the truth of their circumstances cannot be hidden forever and is sadly revealed during the school prom.
Both Plummer and Russell deliver magnetic performances, and their chemistry gives their characters depth and believability. The characters of Parker and Goggins, however, are not well drawn and barely come alive as real human beings but it does not detract from the film’s impact. As Adam attempts to come to terms with schizophrenia, Freudenthal wants to show that he deserves as much sympathy and caring as anyone else struggling with a debilitating illness. In a key moment, Adam says that teens with cancer are shown more compassion and patience. But for those with schizophrenia, “people can’t wait to make you someone else’s problem, no one wants to grant our wishes.”
Do love, support, and self-acceptance cure schizophrenia? No, and the film never suggests that it does, but only that it can help. Freudenthal says he hopes his film can be a “generator of empathy.” The next time, he says that “we encounter someone with the illness, [I hope] we encounter them as a human first . . . seeing everyone as equal and seeing people as sort of suffering from an illness other than being the illness.” Words on Bathroom Walls is a film for those who know what it feels like to exist in a world at odds with your deepest longings for connection and belonging. It is a film that can make you feel that you have found a kindred spirit.