But is it too much, too late?
It wasn’t too long ago that young adult coming-of-age movies started to multiply in number upon the box office success of The Fault in Our Stars, which injected the usual teen drama formula with a high-stakes catch. What if you fell in love with someone who has terminal cancer?
This film trend has slowed down somewhat, with the exception of sappy imitators like last year’s Five Feet Apart, and now Words on Bathroom Walls, which rests its central premise on a new question for the genre: what if you fell in love with someone who has schizophrenia?
Directed by Thor Freudenthal, Words stars Charlie Plummer (Lean on Pete, All the Money in the World) as a high schooler named Adam who is diagnosed with schizophrenia after getting expelled for unintentionally hurting another student. At his new Catholic school, he sparks a potential romance with Maya, played by Taylor Russell (Escape Room, Waves), as well as an unlikely friendship with a priest played by Andy Garcia (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again*). These relationships are tested, however, when Adam begins to weigh the pros and cons of using his medication, which can at times damage his daily lifestyle, including a desire to cook and eventually become a chef.
This is Freudenthal’s first film since Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, but like that film and Diary of a Wimpy Kid before it, his love of using special effects and animation to enhance the story are readily apparent, as Charlie doesn’t just hear voices, he can see the people talking to him. These voices manifest, at times, as benevolent friends ready to give Charlie advice, and at other times these voices become ambiguously dark forces trying to manipulate his actions for the worse. It’s a dynamic seemingly carried over from the eponymous novel by Julia Walton, and it succeeds in allowing room for the more intense risks of schizophrenia without falling into the appalling entertainment tropes of repeatedly depicting schizophrenic characters as inherently dangerous criminals.
Instead, the film explores the more human, authentic side of what living with this condition might actually be like, and how there are no easy answers or cures (Side note: as someone who is not schizophrenic, I highly recommend you seek out other reviews offering this perspective for a more well-rounded take on how this film succeeds or fails in its representation). If Charlie takes his medication, it does come with drawbacks he has to balance and consider. By damaging his ability to taste accurately, it can even hamper his cooking, one of the few things he can enjoy as part of his identity outside of his mental illness.
We’ve seen other movies like Silver Linings Playbook attempt more simplistic takeaways on this subject matter, insisting that love and personal responsibility will ultimately trump any sort of medical prescription. Words does a far better job laying out how hard this actually is, and how it can seriously damage relationships in the process. The film doesn’t always reckon with these behaviors in the most genuine way—Maya, who is unaware of Adam’s condition, is given explicit cause to distance herself from him multiple times, but she inexplicably ignores the red flags. The central romance is the key to the film’s desired connection with its audience, but it’s probably the sloppiest element of the story, despite strong performances all around.
The main problem is that the relationship is a bit rushed and unearned, as Adam is mostly shy and socially awkward throughout, yet he somehow charms his way to Maya’s heart without much effort. This is probably more noticeable because of how weakly written their romance is compared to the far more convincing and ultimately satisfying love story depicted in last year’s Waves, where Russell played against Lucas Hedges in a coming together that felt far more developed in about half the time needed.
Still, it’s hard not to get emotionally invested in Adam’s story as it relates to the ensemble as a whole. His troubled tension with his mother, played by Molly Parker (Madeline’s Madeline), is easily the most nuanced and compelling, because it’s easy to see why he’s feeling left out of her new relationship, but in her defense, she’s been an attentive, if not reasonably flawed, parent trying her best to love her son for who he is, even when it’s not convenient. Her boyfriend, played by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) gets a far more predictable sub plot by comparison, but it essentially sums up this film’s offering to its audience: predictable, but sweet enough to enjoy anyway.
Overall, the film is far more interesting in terms of how it’s technically put together over how it ultimately lands as a story, despite how truly inspiring it will likely be for many who watch it. The music, produced by The Chainsmokers and Andrew Hollander, is far more subdued and detailed to each scene than you might expect from their involvement, as it’s their first time working on a film score. And Michael Goi’s cinematography lends occasional flair to what might’ve otherwise been effectively dull, high school scenery. He takes advantage of the film’s Catholic school backdrop to evoke operatic, often heavenly contrasts to the intensely messy human experiences had by these characters. Religion tends to offer black and white lessons, so it’s fitting to see Adam struggle with that proposition when his life is anything but simple. The film obviously can’t portray the exact, perfectly-realized life of someone who has schizophrenia, as this can be a highly different experience for many people. But it does take its audience a lot further than most other films trying the same.
* Yes, I know he was in other things, but I don’t care.
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