Words on Bathroom Walls is a film about schizophrenia that doesn’t always know what tone to go for. Half of the time, the film aspires to be a quirky comedy, tackling serious issues with humorous undertones. Other times, it tries to be a straight-up tear-jerker. Many coming-of-age movies have found an unlikely balance between comedy and drama. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one example. Words on Bathroom Walls comes close to finding balance with its strong performances and a sweet romance. Whenever the film is played for laughs, though, it suffers from an identity crisis.
Charlie Plummer is a promising young actor, as seen in films like Lean on Pete and All the Money in the World. He gives another powerful performance as Adam, a teenager who wants to become a chef after graduating from high school. As Adam grows up, though, he finds that he sees people and things that others don’t. Adam isn’t diagnosed with schizophrenia until after an accident in science class. He’s immediately expelled, which is this movie’s first problem. Personally, if my kid was expelled over an accident caused by mental illness, I’d sue the school district for discrimination. Regardless, Adam is sent to a private Catholic school to finish his senior year, keeping his diagnosis under wraps.
The best aspect of Words on Bathroom Walls is Adam’s relationship with his mother. Molly Parker hits just the right note as a dedicated parent who will always be there for her son, even while navigating through uncharted territory. Adam isn’t as tight with his stepfather (Walton Goggins), but the film thankfully avoids turning this character into a villain. Although watching Adam continually bad mouth his stepfather can get tiresome, it does feel true to some blended families. There’s also room for a nice love story between Adam and a classmate named Maya (Taylor Russell), a brilliant mind who comes from a low-income household. Unfortunately, many of the scenes between Adam and Maya are interrupted by his imaginary friends.
Adam regularly envisions a flower child (AnnaSophia Robb), a mob enforcer (Lobo Sebastian), and a slacker in his underwear (Devon Bostick). Herein lies the main issue with Words on Bathroom Walls. While it’s not unheard of for schizophrenic patients to see nonexistence people, the characters who invade Adam’s mind feel like they belong on a bad sitcom. Maybe it’d be interesting if they each embodied a different facet of Adam’s personality, but the actors are only given one note to work with. The film can’t decide whether these characters are supposed to be friendly or antagonist. It plays out like an awkward cross between A Beautiful Mind and Herman’s Head. When these characters aren’t onscreen, Words on Bathroom Walls can be very effective as both a drama and a romance. When they do pop up (which is often), the film comes to a screeching halt.
Adam repeatedly tells his unseen physiatrist that they’re never going to have an “It’s not your fault” moment from Good Will Hunting. In the end, however, Adam gets two of these moments with his stepdad and a priest played by Andy García. Trying to have its cake and eat it to, the movie winds up talking with its mouth full. The film means well and has a positive message at its core, but it isn’t tonally consistent enough to make that message stick. Words on Bathroom Walls might have worked had its imaginary characters been better utilized, but the film can’t quite make up its mind.
Words on Bathroom Walls is playing exclusively in theaters, although it should be noted that I was able to screen the film from home.