Author Julia Walton’s 2017 young adult novel Words on Bathroom Walls centers on Adam Petrazelli, a high school senior whose dreams of culinary school seem destined for tragedy soon after he’s diagnosed with schizophrenia. Adapted for the big screen by Nick Naveda (Say You Will) and directed by Thor Fruedenthal (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), Words on Bathroom Walls is a surprisingly touching, often hilarious, grounded story of what it’s like to live with the illness. In its own way, the film seeks to normalize that which scares many, challenging the audience to consider why it’s ok to rally behind some conditions but not others. Most importantly, it never makes light of Adam or his journey through the mental health process. Words on Bathroom Walls never opts to condescend or offer superficial/magical healing. Instead, it places the audience right with Adam, offering an honest glimpse of what this illness is like to live with.
From the first shot of Words, you know that the story is going to have a “happy” ending. From the plucky music, vocal delivery of dialogue from Charlie Plummer’s Adam, set design, and cinematography, Words is far more Love, Simon than it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This is important to signal so early on because the places Words eventually goes to need to possess a semblance of hope to make it more palatable. By the way, the use of quotes before matters because Walton’s story goes out of its way to point out that which many may not realize regarding schizophrenia: there is currently not a cure-all. So what “happy” looks like for one may be something drastically different for another, especially in cases where someone is treatment resistant, meaning that their body doesn’t respond at all to a medication. Adam is one such individual which creates less strain within the film than you’d expect, but we’ll get to the depiction of medicine shortly. What matters here is that Fruedenthal wants the audience to know quickly and early that Adam’s story may not possess a Hollywood ending, but it will be one that’s satisfying to the audience. Which, for what it’s worth, it very much is. Without spoiling any of the journey, Fruedenthal captures the complicated intersection of emotional, psychological, and chemical junctures with taste and style, utilizing a cast who handles even the small, quieter moments with aplomb.
So let’s talk about how Fruedenthal depicts Adam’s episodes. Some of them are entirely harmless, almost like extensions of her personality. These are represented by flowerchild Rebecca (AnnaSophia Rob), horn dog Joaquin (Devon Bostick), and The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian). Depicted as ever-present companions, they each engage with Adam in differing ways, but rarely in a contemptuous manner. They want to help him interact with those around him or, when appropriate, remove him from danger. Though they themselves can’t interact with the world around them, they are still shown to do so, extending what Adam perceives to the audience. In one scene, The Bodyguard offers to “take care of” the headmaster at a new school that seems to be bothering Adam. When Adam rejects the offer, The Bodyguard instead flicks the cigar at the headmaster, accidently lighting her and her office ablaze. We are shown what Adam sees, but we also see Adam struggle to ignore the rapidly billowing flames engulfing the room. (Side note: In moments like these the visual effects are incredibly noticeable as digitally created versus practical. Where this might be a disservice in other stories, that noticeable difference extends Adam’s perception to the audience, helping to create a notion of what’s real and what’s not.) There is, however, another formless individual present within Adam, a nameless form that the credit list refers to only as Darkness (voiced by Jared Bankens) which slithers and oozes around Adam’s periphery, seemingly trying to overtake him, loudly whispering all the horrible things Adam thinks about himself. Unlike the other figures, Darkness is a malignancy which Adam can never escape. When episodes involve Darkness, the worst things in the story take place. (To its credit, the sound design for Words shines in these moments as Fruedenthal envelopes the audience with the whispers that accompany Darkness, as well as Darkness’s voice itself.) If not based on a real illness, the inclusion of Darkness might seem like manufactured opposition for our protagonist, but it is real and Darkness represents the part of the illness that society fears most due to its lack of understanding. The closest thing Darkness represents is depression, that part of you which lies to you constantly about what other people think or what their actions/reactions say about you. Except, in the case of Adam, Darkness is depression made manifest, given the sensory complications that come with his episodes, and thus becomes the supportive antagonist within Words. I say “supportive antagonist” because Walton’s story makes a point to highlight how treatment is entirely a guessing game and that the side effects of medications often make the individual feel worse than without it. Because of this, Adam serves as both protagonist and antagonist within Words, taking the audience through his journey of self-acceptance.
This brings us to the presentation of Adam’s journey. Having no knowledge of the novel, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Naveda’s adaptation, except to say that everything made sense within what the audience is given, the rules presented are adhered to, and the moments requiring emotional weight achieved their desired effect. In the words of David Johansen’s Ghost of Christmas Past, “Niagara Falls, Frankie Angel.” Plummer really shines here, offering a leading man performance that signals a promising career. He instantly charms us with the opening story detailing his diagnosis and the events leading to where the story begins, a necessity since the audience will be seeing things through his eyes. The fact that he charms us so quickly helps the audience to root for him, sure, but also to understand why he begins to make the choices he does when the medication he takes starts to impact him physically. Without judgment on Adam, the audience is taken through what it feels like for a medication to work, for it to effectively remove the episodes completely while also bringing side effects like loss of taste, tremors, and blurry vision. These are three things that impact the senses and skills Adam needs to become a chef, thus a choice is presented: take the medication and be a stunted version of yourself or pretend to take it and be able to follow your dream while still dealing with unpredictable episodes. The film offers no grand solution because to do so would undercut the genuine presentation of someone living with schizophrenia. What compounds the pathos of Words is that the film is from Adam’s perspective; the audience only knows what we see through him, thereby isolating us with him. We don’t see it that way because, again, Plummer is incredibly charming. But that charm taints our view of other’s choices because we automatically side with Adam. With a delicate touch, Naveda and Fruedenthal slowly remind the audience that our narrow view of things is not the entire picture. In so doing, not only do we never lose faith in Adam but we never lose faith in those Adam seems to have lost faith in.
The trailer for Words on Bathroom Walls suggests that the film is going to be a light-hearted affair as Adam tries to do all which a high schooler might want (graduation, fall in love, chase their dreams) all while hampered by “one small issue.” Except that’s a friendly deception as Words is more an invitation to explore what schizophrenia is, how it impacts those with the illness, and how it impacts those close to them. Naveda’s script crafts no heroes, no white knights, no bow tie endings out of Walton’s script and Fruedenthal pulls from his top-notch cast performances that will lift you high or break your heart, often with perceived ease. Though Plummer is the focus, the cast of Molly Parker (Madeline’s Madeline), Walton Goggins (FX’s Justified), Taylor Russell (Waves), Beth Grant (Donnie Darko), and Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven) make the world of Words come alive and feel lived in. And, strangely, you will want to live in it, so wonderfully do these performances and the story they tell envelope you. Going in fairly blind, I finished it utterly astonished. I won’t be surprised if others feel the same.
In select theaters August 21st, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Words on Bathroom Walls website.
For more information on Julia Walton and her novel, go to her official website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.