Teen melodramas, while somewhat unfairly treated as disposal in the marketplace, have recently found renewed value in telling important stories previously excluded from their genre’s narrative. While The Fault in Our Stars received perhaps the widest popularity in its love story centered on terminally ill teens, the genre was at its finest with The Hate U Give‘s youth-centered examination of racism and police brutality. Now following in The Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s shoes, another story of young love, self-acceptance, and mental illness is offered in Words on Bathroom Walls. It’s not one that stands alongside any of those better films.
Based on Julia Walton’s novel, Words‘ focus on mental health has a more specific diagnosis for its hero Adam (Lean On Pete‘s Charlie Plummer), and therefore more opportunity to tell a new kind of story. Adam lives with paranoid schizophrenia, and its his greatest obstacle in the way of his dream of attending culinary school after high school. After being expelled from public school due to an episode that injures a fellow classmate, Adam is admitted to a private Catholic school under the guidelines that he maintain a suitable GPA and stay on his medication. That first criteria is met when he lands class valedictorian Maya (Taylor Russell) as a tutor. As natural romance develops, the side effects of his medication cause Adam to secretly quit, and with intense consequences.
Rather than serving the necessary representation of mental illness onscreen, the film sullies its potential value by the broad, often inappropriate tone it strikes. The manifestations of his illness are treated throughout as punchlines that borders on sketch comedy, presenting the voices in his head as physical caricatures and cliches – a free-spirited good-vibes pixie, a boxer-clad slacker bro, and a Latinx tough guy with a baseball bat. It’s a concept that delivers racial insensitivity, a profound overconfidence in its wit, and a clothesline to the chest of the film’s otherwise uncommon exploration of Adam’s diagnosis. And with a visual cheapness (not to mention the patience-testing blare of the original score by The Chainsmokers) cast over these stretches, its insurmountable amount of poor taste makes you question its intentions by the film’s end. Is the film simply compelled to cynically follow a certain mold, or is it genuinely thoughtful and respectful in telling a story teens like Adam have never seen reflected before? The doubt over the latter is the film’s undoing.
The film’s reliance on cliches unfortunately doesn’t help either. Even with a new and important angle to approach teenage emotions, director Thor Freudenthal doesn’t find unique ways to stray from the structure and genre benchposts of better, more affecting films. All expected story beats arrive precisely on schedule and with the full brunt of generic alt pop song cues, from the secrets revealed in the romance to the feaux-unexpected compassion in Adam’s step-father (Walton Goggins). Though Russell remains a star-in-the-making bright spot, as she did in last year’s Waves, other strong cast members such as Molly Parker as Adam’s mother and Andy Garcia as a doting priest remain burdened by the overly familiar.
Despite the significance of its subject, the alternatingly flat and gauche execution of Words on Bathroom Walls keeps it firmly in the realm of forgettable teen cinema rather than the essential.