Artistically, Hollywood has had a tough time adapting young adult novels. While usually finding an audience, most of their adaptations of the more serious YA novels have fallen flat. Sadly, and despite a solid cast, the new film “Words on Bathroom Walls” is no exception.
Adapting Julia Walton’s novel, screenwriter Nick Naveda attempts to recognize the issues of mental illness in realistic and understandable ways. The film can’t quite get there, as it tries to be too many different styles while pleasing its young audience.
Adam (a particularly good Charlie Plummer) is a high-schooler who dreams of becoming a chef. His passion for cooking came about as a coping mechanism after his father walked out on his mother (a rather bland Molly Parker). Out of that family trauma came the creative spark that Adam wants to pursue into adulthood. Unfortunately, he is dealing with the very real issues of schizophrenia.
This is an issue that has been handled very well throughout the years in cinema, from 1948’s “The Snake Pit” and Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 “Through a Glass Darkly” to Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” and David Cronenberg’s “Spider” Most of the time is it handled with care but there are occasions where the illness has been treated with kid’s gloves. In Thor Freudenthal’s film, the illness is given the Hollywood treatment, as the voices in his head are populated by other actors (Lobo Sebastian, Ana Sophia Robb, and Devon Bostick). This comes off as more of a gimmick and takes away any serious examination of Adam’s schizophrenia, as each one has the easily relatable personalities of modern teens. This and the director’s use of CGI FX to convey Adam’s mind and visions during his episodes make it all but impossible to take this film too seriously. The three different characters feel more like the cast of an eighties horror film. Perhaps the director of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was not the best choice for a film such as this one.
After a student is injured during one of Adam’s episodes, he is expelled from his high-school smack in the middle of his Senior year. This sends him on a journey to a trial for an untested drug that the doctors claim will help with his illness. He also begins attending a new Catholic school, as he needs to keep his grade point average on track to be accepted into a culinary college. I will tell you that this all leads to an important essay to be read at the film’s finale and this is far from a spoiler. This is telegraphed in almost every moment of the film so it comes as no surprise that the ending falls back on familiar Hollywood tropes such as the emotional speech to show that Adam, and people with his disease, are human beings just like us. Films have taken us here for decades and I find it rather insulting to this story for the film to end up at such a saccharine and oft-used finale.
The experimental drug starts to have negative effects on Adam. He experiences a dangerous loss of the ability to taste, which of course puts his dream of being a chef in real jeopardy. This all begins to seep into his school and home life. His new stepfather (Walton Goggins in the film’s best performance) is patient and tries his best to understand. It is in the portrayal of the stepfather and his relationship to Adam where the film does find a certain level of poignancy. Goggins brings a gravitas and sense of acceptable reality to his moments and it helps the bitter pill of the uneven direction go down easier.
Too much of the film is devoted to the sappy and unrealistically presented relationship between Adam and Maya, an honor student in his school. Their scenes of courtship are so sugar-sweet and badly presented that they become almost parody and the dialogue sounds as if it was written by a lovestruck eleven year-old who just completed their umpteenth viewing of “Ice Castles.”
Will Maya be able to reveal to Adam that she is not from a wealthy family? Will Adam ever reveal the truth about his illness? Will the two ever be able to fully trust in one another to accept them for who they are? Who cares!?
I believe that Freudenthal had good intentions when taking on this film and perhaps he wanted to be more artful in visualizing Adam’s schizophrenia. But in his attempt at trying to put images to Adam’s mental confusion, he lessens the effect on the audience.
Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” did kind of the same thing, as it cast different actors as Russell Crowe’s delusions but it was all done subtly and was part of a bigger puzzle for Crowe’s character (and Howard’s audience) to solve. Yet Howard’s approach wasn’t so in-your-face. There is nothing subtle in how director Freudenthal presents Adam’s struggles. Loud special effects blasting across the screen as Peter McNulty’s editing becomes tiresome lessens the power of Adam’s struggle for the audience until it all becomes rather lifeless.
I dislike giving bad reviews, especially to films that deal with important subjects. But I cannot be too kind to “Words on Bathroom Walls.” A noble effort, yes, but a wrongheaded approach to the material. With a film geared toward a young adult audience regarding a teenager navigating the troubles of schizophrenia, it should not have been spoon-fed. Today’s young audiences are smarter. They can take it and they deserve better.