WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS
(director: Thor Freudenthal; screenwriters: novel by Julia Walton/Nick Naveda; cinematographer: Michael Goi; editor: Peter McNulty; music: Andrew Hollander/The Chainsmokers; cast: Charlie Plummer (Adam Petrazelli), AnnaSophia Robb (Rebecca), Andy García (Father Patrick), Walton Goggins (Paul), Taylor Russell (Maya), Devon Bostick (Joaquin), Lobo Sebastian (BodyguardBeth Grant (Sister Catherine), Aaron Dominguez (Todd), Molly Parker (Beth); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Thor Freudenthal; Roadside Attractions; 2020)
“I welcomed the mostly realistic way it portrayed its protagonist.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Thor Freudenthal (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”/“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”), prior to this a director of goofy children flicks, gently directs a feel-good teen drama, with some comical moments. It’s about a high school student trying to get by high school with terrible mental health problems that he hides. It’s adapted from the 2017 award-winning YA novel by Julia Walton and has a smart script by Nick Naveda.
The sympathetic Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) is a high school senior who wants to be a chef, and needs a high school diploma to get into a culinary school. He enjoys cooking for his distracted mom, Beth (Molly Parker), and her new husband Paul (Walton Goggins). Adam hides from everyone he hears creepy imaginary voices in his head (a trio offering him bad advice—Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a hippie full of New Age truths; Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a horny womanizer and, the unnamed Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping muscle-man ready to bust things and people up).
Adam survives school even though it turns out he has a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia, causing him to have aural and visual hallucinations, delusions, and his behavior is extremely disordered. Nevertheless he still navigates high school. That is until one incident at school, where he’s experimenting in his chemistry lab class with chemicals and suddenly feels attacked for no reason and reacts by setting a classmate on fire, which severely burns the student’s arm. It results in Adam being dismissed from school.
Adam goes into therapy and gets new meds. He tells us what’s going down by talking to the camera (he does that throughout the film, trying to explain what he’s going through). We never see the psychiatrist, as he tells the shrink his disorders started when his dad left. The kid is ashamed of his disease and tried masking it by taking all kinds of treatments before going for therapy, but seems to be treatment resistant.
In his new school, a Catholic school, the principal, Sister Catherine (Beth Grant), agrees to admit him as long as he takes his new miracle meds and continues to get therepy. At school Adam is doing poorly and gets his classmate Maya (Taylor Russell) to tutor him. He falls for her and they make a love connection. But he believes he will lose her if she learns about his illness, so he hides it from her.
Problems arise, as he fears his stepdad is trying to place him in a mental institution and because the meds leave the future chef with no taste as a side effect, so he stops taking them. When he takes Maya to the prom, only to get involved in an incident that gets him suspended, things look bleak. But the perceptive priest, Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), intervenes and saves the day for the kid, so he can graduate.
The teen film works fine as an honest take on Adam’s problems and what he’s going through, but compromises too much in its requisite happy ending seemingly needed for such YA films, and thereby loses much of its credibility. It’s just laughable to think a dramatic speech by him at his graduation will fix all the problems, but that is exactly what the filmmaker wants us to believe.
Nevertheless the film is saved by a superb performance by Plummer and it does a good job by showing a deep empathy for young people with mental problems. Too often only those with physical illnesses will get our sympathy in both real-life and on the screen, so I welcomed the mostly realistic way it portrayed its protagonist.
The striking title is derived from Adam’s frightening episode in which he imagines malicious messages to him are scrawled on the walls of the school’s male bathrooms.
REVIEWED ON 8/26/2020 GRADE: B-