Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell in the same movie is almost too good to be true. Each of these young actors had a brilliant starring role in an extraordinary, structurally audacious recent movie, Lean on Pete for Plummer and Waves for Russell.
Words on Bathroom Walls, based on the young-adult novel by Julia Walton and directed by Thor Freudenthal (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters; Diary of a Wimpy Kid), is predictably more conventional than those films. I was reminded at times of The Fault in Our Stars, another YA adaptation about illness with low-key religious themes and a central relationship that morphs from platonic friendship into romance. But compelling performances elevate the sometimes familiar material, along with a gratifyingly frank, therapeutic depiction of mental illness, in this case schizophrenia. Adam Petrazelli (Plummer), a high-school senior, has trouble knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Like Russell Crowe’s John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, he’s orbited by a cast of supporting characters that only he can see and hear, representing various aspects of his psyche.
The film also echoes A Beautiful Mind in the protagonist’s struggle between the liberating and debilitating effects of medication. One of the major themes is that Adam has an illness but the illness is not him, though he discovers that attempts to control the illness may have consequences for parts of himself that he cares about. John Nash did math; Adam cooks and finds liberation in the kitchen. His dreams of culinary school, though, are imperiled by his first psychotic break, an incident with supernatural horror-movie resonances that inconveniently strikes in chemistry class during his senior year of high school. Someone is hurt, and Adam is expelled. His hopes to get his life back on track involve a convergence of two paths: an experimental drug study and a Catholic school named for St. Agatha, where he meets brainy, jaded Maya (Russell) and a taciturn priest named Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), whom Adam mostly encounters in the confessional, despite not believing in God.
Molly Parker (House of Cards) is utterly credible as Adam’s mother, Beth, a constant advocate for her son whose biggest challenge may be persuading him that they really are on the same team. Their quarrels are among the film’s most true-to-life elements. Walton Goggins (Ant-Man and the Wasp) is nicely ambiguous as Paul, Beth’s new boyfriend, whom Adam resents without in any way pining for his deadbeat dad. (Adam says his dad split over Adam’s illness, which he considered “a buzzkill for his creativity.”)
Maya is so gifted that she’s not only St. Agatha’s top student but also props up other students on the sly for cash, a “side hustle” leading to a legit gig as Adam’s tutor, paid by Adam’s grateful mom. Initially it seems Maya is drawn to Adam’s quirkiness as a kind of puzzle to be solved, and how long Adam will be able to keep his schizophrenia a secret from her and everyone else at St. Agatha’s is a key dramatic question. Maya could have been a magic girlfriend existing to solve Adam’s problems, but the story gives her issues and secrets of that go some way toward giving her an arc of her own. I would have liked more of a third act for her, as well as more attention to the socioeconomic issues the film raises (particularly as regards questions like who gets expelled and who doesn’t).
Adam’s other defining “relationships” are with characters who don’t exist: benevolent Rebecca (Soul Surfer’s AnnaSophia Robb), decadent Joaquin (Devon Bostick) and the unnamed, bat-wielding Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian). There’s also a malicious, demonic voice that addresses Adam from the darkness behind doors left ajar, confronting him with anxieties and whatever thoughts would most torture him.
Like many literary adaptations, Words relies heavily on first-person voice-over narration. I’m told the book takes the form of a series of journal entries written by Adam for his therapist, whom he refuses to talk to, which the movie wisely adapts as in-person therapy sessions. (Adam speaks directly to the camera, and the therapist is never seen or heard.) In the book, I guess, Adam’s exchanges in the confessional with Father Patrick would be a therapeutic breakthrough, a setting in which Adam is willing to talk directly about his problems to someone in a way he won’t talk to his therapist. Since the film’s Adam does talk openly to his therapist, there’s a smaller significance to the confessional scenes, highlighted when Adam realizes with a sense of betrayal that everything he tells his therapist gets back to his mother. What Adam tells the priest in the box, on the other hand, stays between the two of them (and God, the priest adds, acknowledging that, since Adam doesn’t believe in God, from his point of view it’s just the two of them).
Father Patrick is a sympathetic figure, if not a model priest. He gives Adam absolution in their first encounter, which is obviously bogus since not only hasn’t Adam confessed anything or expressed contrition, we don’t even know if he was baptized. (In the book I understand Adam’s family are mostly lapsed Italian Catholics who still go to Mass for Easter.) More trivially, Father Patrick cites verses from 1 John and 2 Timothy without the initial number, as if he’s not entirely sure which ordinal epistle he wants. Father Patrick ultimately explains to Adam that we need confession because acknowledging our flaws to others is important in overcoming them. That’s true, and while for Catholics there’s obviously a deeper religious significance to confession, it’s the truth Adam needs at the moment, and it sets up the climax. (Father Patrick does get to offer a real Christian prayer for Adam, so his faith isn’t entirely elided by psychology.)
The principal, Sister Catherine (Beth Grant, Jackie), is a more mixed figure, well-meaning but ultimately representing the small-minded failings of religious institutions. In a striking early visualization of Adam’s psychosis, when Adam, Beth and Paul first go to St. Agatha to meet Sister Catherine, Adam sees the principal calmly talking in the midst of an increasingly out-of-control fire like the viral “This Is Fine/On Fire” dog. It’s an early example of how Adam’s hallucinations are sometimes played for laughs, and while the visual suggestion of fiery perdition could be merely ironic and not rancorous, by the end of the film the latter take is more plausible.
For what it’s worth, it seems Adam in the book is much more antagonistic toward Catholicism than comes across in the film. Another notable omission: As in The Fault in Our Stars, the book depicts a transgressive first sexual encounter (the book’s Adam has sex for the first time with Maya while wearing a Jesus beard for a Stations of the Cross play; in The Fault in Our Stars the main characters have sex for the first time after kissing at the Anne Frank house). In the film the romance goes no further than a first kiss (and Jesus beards are not a thing).
The film’s insightful portrayal of mental illness and strong character moments exist in tension with the more clichéd genre elements. Halfway through I found myself rooting for the film to be the best version of itself, a sign that a film is working even when it’s not completely successful. My favorite moment, which might also be the sneakiest, is the one in which the significance of the title is revealed. If the ending is too tidy and too conventional, there have been lots of endings like this for neurotypicals, and perhaps people with mental illness — and the people who love them — deserve some, too.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.