Words on Bathroom Walls movie review: Mental illness in a teen romance

Special to The Swellesley Report by Madelyn Peng, WHS ’21

Based on the book written by Julia Walton, the new film “Words on Bathroom Walls” tells the story of Adam (Charlie Plummer), a high school senior with schizophrenia, as he navigates through his last year with dreams of becoming a chef. When he meets and falls in love with Maya (Taylor Russell) at a new school, Adam is desperate to hide his mental illness to avoid being defined by it.

The casting for this movie is flawless. Plummer portrays Adam with an awkwardness and wittiness that has the audience rooting for him rather than pitying him. His acting during even the most uncomfortable and frightening scenes is realistic and genuine, and he delivers voice-overs and the final monologue with powerful, raw emotions. Russell plays the very outspoken Maya with an air of confidence and compassion. She stands out as an independent and intelligent young woman, defying expectations throughout her journey. In a very admirable way, the actors fit so well into their roles that viewers feel emotionally connected to the story instantly.

Words on Bathroom Walls
Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell in “Words on Bathroom Walls” (Photo courtesy of Jacob Yakob, LD Entertainment, Roadside Attractions)


Furthermore, the cinematography in the film is breathtaking. The camera angles during Adam’s schizophrenic attacks well portray the chaos in his mind. The angles that shift every second (even going upside down at points) capture the confusion and franticness of Adam as he struggles to keep a grasp on what is real and what is in his mind. The lighting is also used to convey his mental state, where natural lighting is present when he is happiest and overwhelming flashes and swallowing dark clouds are depicted during his attacks. Additionally, the pattern of choppy sentences and distorted voices contribute to the audience’s perception of Adam’s disorientation. The camerawork, light, and audio fuse together for an amazing portrayal of the chaos within the mind of a schizophrenic attack.

On the other hand, the characters in Adam’s mind are a miss for the movie. As comical as they are, they don’t add anything to the depiction of schizophrenia and instead detract from its actual significance. All three characters are rather archetypal, such as the zen buddha-like Rebecca and the intimidating Bodyguard. Instead of adding humor and relieving tension as intended, these characters were poorly written into the movie and characterized as very shallow figures.

The plot of the movie, likewise, felt a little empty and foreseeable. Although in the end, Adam says “love can’t cure disease,” the movie itself sends the opposite message. Once he falls in love with Maya, Adam finds himself taking the pills he had once refused to take. This conveys that Maya is Adam’s “cure” early on in the film, and it takes until the ending for Adam to say that she wasn’t. That aspect was a letdown because it seems that the director made a last-ditch attempt to remind viewers that love doesn’t solve everything, while the whole movie communicates the exact opposite lesson. The storyline mainly follows Adam’s struggle with schizophrenia but minimizes the impactful messages by painting Maya as his savior in a very predictable romance.

The soundtrack for the film was decent, but the much anticipated “If Walls Could Talk” written and sung by The Chainsmokers isn’t as exciting as expected. In a very emotional scene where Adam is in the hospital after an severe schizophrenic attack at prom, the audience expects an extremely heartfelt song with pure emotion and vulnerability, but the song is just mediocre. By itself, “If Walls Could Talk” is not bad at all, but within the movie’s context, the lyrics and raspy vocals don’t coincide with the rawness of Adam’s emotions and the overbearing sentiments of pain and loss.

Nevertheless, the film finished strongly with a positive circular ending. At the beginning, knives represent people’s perceptions of Adam as a danger to their safety due to his illness as Paul is shown hiding all the knives. In the final scene, Adam unwraps several cooking knives while he stands in culinary school, signifying how he has come to terms with who he is. The knives no longer define him as a danger; instead, they define him as something more important to him than his illness: a chef. With a very powerful and optimistic tone, the movie communicates how Adam finds closure and manages to understand himself.

Overall, “Words On Bathroom Walls” deserves a 7/10. The plot is illustrated with creative motifs and outstanding cinematography that captures Adam’s state of mind during his schizophrenic attacks. Although shallow at times, the film tells a difficult story with impactful messages. Comparing how schizophrenic individuals are treated to those with cancer and diving into the outside perception of people with schizophrenia, the movie educates viewers on real-life experiences and provides guidance for those struggling with mental illnesses. Adam reminds the audience that even though he does have schizophrenia, he is “not defined by the illness itself.”

“Words on Bathroom Walls” is in theaters now.