High school is a challenging time for many individuals. It’s not as simple as heading to class, earning good grades, and getting into a dream college. There are additional things to consider: Should I be a part of the Drama Club or go out for the baseball team? Are people going to judge me based on my clothing choices, the car I drive, or the posts on my Insta account? Is it worth the rejection if I ask the cheerleader out to dinner and a movie? In the film Words on Bathroom Walls, Adam Petrazelli (Charley Plummer) also has to deal with a trio of personas living their ‘lives’ out in his head. It’s enough to cause someone to lose their mind—and he almost does.
We meet Adam through flashbacks as he recounts his experiences to a psychologist. He’s had to deal with schizophrenia for his entire life in the form of laid-back Joaquin (Devon Bostick), who tells him to say all of his unfiltered thoughts; free-spirit Rebecca (Annasophia Robb), who is very much peace-loving; and The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), who administers justice with an aluminum baseball bat. There’s also a menacing black fog that shows up and threatens Adam with put-downs – this leads to a situation in chemistry class that gets Adam expelled. His mom (Molly Parker) tries to help him, knowing that he’s an incredible chef and has one chance to attain culinary school. To that end, she and his new stepfather Paul (Walton Goggins) enroll him in St. Agatha Catholic School. “I’m not even Catholic,” Adam says as he meets with the head of the school. The Bodyguard gets involved, throwing a lit cigar on the floor, starting a virtual fire that immediately (and hilariously) calls to mind the meme where a dog is sitting in a burning room and quips, “This is fine.” There are high standards at St. Agatha, and Adam is determined to reach them via the help of a new medication he’s taking as part of a clinical trial. Sure enough, the medicine works and the three personas begin to disappear, allowing him to be his true self.
While in this single persona state, Adam begins to figure out the school. He finds a bathroom scrawled with words—and nefarious behavior in the form of soon-to-be valedictorian Maya (Taylor Russell). She calls herself “The Bernie Madoff of academic fraud,” making money by helping kids with assignments. Adam watches a transaction and is somewhat smitten by Maya, and over time (due to his excellent cooking) wins her friendship. But he discovers there’s more to Maya than meets the eye. Adam also begins to accept some truth about himself (and confession in the form of 1 John 1:9) via Father Patrick (Andy Garcia). When the medicine begins to cause serious side effects, Adam has a choice to make: keep taking it or stop, allowing the personas to return, possibly threatening to undo all the positives from his time at the school.
Words on Bathroom Walls calls to mind Daniel Keyes’ classic story Flowers for Algernon, where Charlie Gordon undergoes an experimental surgery that boosts his IQ to genius levels. It causes him to make sense of his world in ways never imagined before. Adam begins to understand life free from the constraints of schizophrenia, but finally realizes that people close to him love him and want the best for him regardless. I do think the physical personas were a touch of genius, but director Thor Freudenthal’s work was overshadowed by two things: a lack of interaction between Adam and other students and an overly formulaic ending that didn’t seem realistic (considering the nature of a mental condition). Regardless, it was a film that helps to bring the topic of mental disorders in teens into a more mainstream discussion.
One of the takeaways that I had from the movie involved being true to oneself as well as others. Obviously, Adam didn’t want people to know about his condition (he was bullied in the early stages of the film for it), but Maya did the same thing. It reminds me a lot of how life has changed since The Virus That Must Not Be Named made an entrance into our lives. In addition to changing societal norms like handshakes and hugs, it has become a magnifying glass that has peered into the souls of billions of people and exposed many deep-seated beliefs—or even prejudices—in the form of BLM, facial coverings, or other thoughts/feelings kept inside for too long and eventually released – see Matthew 12:34). May we consider a better option—the mind of Christ, who was humble and embodied a servant heart and attitude (see Philippians 2:5-11). That will go a long way as our world goes forward.
Being real can be a good thing! It just took a few words on some bathroom walls to remind me of that fact.
Words on Bathroom Walls is available on VOD on August 21st, 2020.