REVIEW: Strong new film release explores schizophrenia

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is the excellent new release from director Thor Freudenthal.
“Words on Bathroom Walls” is the excellent new release from director Thor Freudenthal.

Obviously, the current worldwide pandemic has affected each person differently, with the broad spectrum of mental health issues also in play. Fortunately, in the last decade or so, there has been a concentrated effort to look at mental health challenges with more compassion and understanding, giving individuals the opportunity to learn about what ails them and the people close to them how to help and assist. It's been truly wonderful for both those dealing with the conditions and those who love them.

Though many Hollywood films use the subject of mental health as a catalyst for horror or thrillers, there are a number of movies that depict the subject much more realistically.

Once such depiction is “Words on Bathroom Walls,” a new release from director Thor Freudenthal.

“Words,” based on the novel of the same name by Julia Walton, focuses on Adam (Charlie Plummer), a senior in high school who happens to have schizophrenia. The mental condition causes him to see and hear things that are not there, eventually prompting a major incident in which he has to be removed from his current school. He is transferred to another, St. Agatha’s Catholic School, to finish out and graduate so he can go on to study to become a chef.

In need of a tutor to avoid another expulsion, Adam meets Maya (Taylor Russel), St. Agatha’s potential valedictorian, who is not completely inclined to help without some financial incentive. The two embark on a relationship that begins to blossom, but their secrets threaten not only their budding romance but their future.

Freudenthal, whose credits include several TV shows and the movie adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” directs the film with the tempered control of a seasoned veteran. He paces the script with standard shots mixed with a juxtaposition of visual and audio effects that allow the audience to experience Adam’s episodes right along with him. He thoughtfully refrains from any jump scares, instead capturing moments with grace and elegance.

The story is narrated by Adam; he describes what he is going through with evenly spaced voice-overs along with breaking the fourth wall and talking straight into the camera during his counseling sessions. The horror of the film comes from the realization that this young man is held hostage by a condition few know anything about. Adam gets treated like a criminal and a freak, when all he wants to do is develop his culinary skills because cooking gives him pleasure and peace.

Freudenthal personifies the visions with different characters with different traits; free-spirited Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb) who loves everything; hormone-driven Joaquin (Devon Bostick) who is trying to make Adam act on his urges; and hair trigger-tempered Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) who wants to take out anyone who threatens him. The other voice is Darkness (Jared Bankens), who whispers negative thoughts and literally becomes a dark smoke that overcomes Adam’s vision.

Writer Nick Naveda’s debut screenplay is smartly written. The dialogue is natural and the situations that the characters find themselves in are quite realistic; the episodes Adam experiences range from difficult to disturbing. The film flows so smoothly, you almost don’t notice the 110-minute run time.

Along with the visual aspects, the acting is very strong and believable. Taylor Russel’s driven Maya is a well-developed character who is not just the love interest. She has a few issues of her own, and as she realizes her feelings for Adam, Russel combines strength and vulnerability as well as sympathy. She gives Adam a reason to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Along with Russel, longtime character actors blend into the narrative with convincing portrayals of the important people in Adam’s life. Molly Parker is his mother, Beth, who brings a sense of desperation to the role of a single mother trying to keep everything together. Walton Goggins is Paul, the live-in, who balances his feelings for Beth and his true desire for Adam. Beth Grant is Sister Catherine, the main administrator of St. Agatha, who believes she is working in the best interest of the school.

The great Andy Garcia plays Father Patrick and gives a tremendous performance as the priest and spiritual adviser. He makes the character so real, that the audience will be mesmerized when he is on screen. His personality is not fire and brimstone but a truly remarkable and benevolent human, filled with kindness and mercy for Adam and his plight.

Plummer is, in a word, terrific as the lead. He is an older teen struggling with an affliction that he can’t understand much less control. He makes the audience feel so many emotions – sorrow, pain, anger, love, joy and pity. That is not easy to accomplish, but he does it with the skills of a much older, experienced actor. Though it might be way too early, and the odds are slim, he should garner at least a nomination come award season. Nineteen years ago, Russell Crowe was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” playing the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. Plummer is good enough to be mentioned in the same sentence.

There is a balancing act that a director must do when it comes to films with complex themes and ideals, and Freudenthal does it wonderfully. He provides the audience with the right amount of detail and story exposition so that we can follow it, he then uses some creative visuals to give us the experience of an episode, trusts his actors to give believable performances, and treats a sensitive subject with a warm touch.

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is not sugar-coated but does have comedy and some sweet and tender moments that will provide you with the one emotion that helps us through pandemics, societal issues and crises:


• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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