While we wait for cinemas to re-open – over two months away, at least – we’re still mopping up some of the titles which had little more than a mild flirtation with the big screen last year. Among them is YA mental health drama, Words On Bathroom Walls, from Diary Of A Wimpy Kid director, Thor Freudenthal: well-intentioned and with its heart in the right place, it also sports a pair of rose tinted glasses perched firmly on its nose.
Teenager Adam (Charlie Plummer) got into cookery as a way to comfort his mother Beth (Molly Parker) after the two were left on their own, but it also fulfils another need for the teenager. To quieten the voices he hears in his head and keep at bay the characters hanging around him, ones that nobody else can see. After a schizophrenia diagnosis and a string of schools where things don’t work out, he’s accepted by a high flying Catholic establishment which agrees to keep his illness a secret as long as he continues participating in trials of a new drug. Meeting the confident Maya (Taylor Russell), one of the school’s brightest students, he hires her as his after-school tutor, the two grow closer, things start falling into place and the future looks a whole lot brighter. Until a change in his circumstances at home triggers an incident.
On a mission to help his audience understand schizophrenia, Freudenthal combines teen movie conventions with some of the darker aspects of the condition. It’s a creditable attempt to explain something almost unimaginable, but hampered by those tropes coming closer to clichés. The three characters haunting Adam represent the turbulence and conflict in his mind, but they seem to have stepped straight out of a cartoon and the overall effect is too neat. Adam breaking the fourth wall as the film’s narrator, apparently telling his story to a psychiatrist, suffers from the same problem, but the menacing off-screen voice that conjures up the darker side of his thoughts is more successful, especially when accompanied by all-enveloping black smoke.
While he’s preoccupied by keeping his condition secret from Maya and the rest of the school, Adam is also troubled by his home life and his mum’s relationship with live-in boyfriend Paul (an unusually low-key Walton Goggins). The teenager is convinced that he wants to get rid of him so that he can have Beth all to himself and it’s only later in the story that Adam realises the truth of the situation. But, again, it’s simply too tidy a resolution to what is a much messier situation, one partly driven by the teenager’s illness.
Despite its tendency to present an almost Hollywood-ised picture of mental illness, Words On Bathroom Walls clearly aspires to further understanding and compassion, and deserves credit for that. It’s helped greatly by its cast, Plummer in particular, who capitalises on his fragile looks to create a sympathetic and nicely balanced portrayal of a young man who has mountains to overcome in an effort to be “normal” – whatever that is. Formulaic it may be, but the film creates enough warmth to at least partly overcome the shortcomings in its storytelling.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Digital | 1 March 2021 | Dir. Thor Freudenthal | Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Andy Garcia.