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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Words on Bathroom Walls is an adaptation of Julia Walton's 2017 YA novel about a high school senior who's diagnosed with schizophrenia, expelled from public school, and then transfers to a Catholic school where no one knows about his past. Directed by Thor Freudenthal, the movie should appeal to fans of realistic teen dramas like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Spectacular Now, Five Feet Apart, and Everything, Everything. It sensitively depicts the challenges of living with a mental illness, the fear of stigma and bullying, and the importance of honesty and empathy in relationships. There's occasional (but not frequent) strong language, including "s--t," "freak," "straitjacket," etc. (as well as one use of "f--k"). Romantic content focuses more on emotion than on physical action, but there's a bit of flirting, dancing, and making out. There's some cigarette smoking, too, as well as a lot of prescription medication. A few scenes of violence, mostly related to an incident in which a character accidentally spills a beaker of acid onto his friend/lab partner in chemistry class, are upsetting but not graphic. Families will have plenty to discuss after the movie, from mental illness and blended families to class and nontraditional career paths. Charlie Plummer (Looking for Alaska) and Taylor Russell (Waves) star.
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What's the story?
WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS is adapted from the same-titled 2017 YA novel by Julia Walton about Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer). Adam is a senior whose dreams of culinary school and a typical high school experience are cut short when he experiences auditory and visual hallucinations personified by a few different people in his head -- Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), who's zen boho chic; Joaquin (Devon Bostick), who's all hedonistic id; Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), who's always up for a fight; and Darkness, who spreads self-destructive and suicidal thoughts. After Adam has an episode at school, accidentally hurts his classmate, and is diagnosed with schizophrenia, he transfers to a Catholic school for his final semester of senior year, where classmates don't know his medical history. In order to enroll, Adam must stay on his experimental meds and meet a high GPA and standardized test score requirement. At school, Adam meets outspoken and brilliant Maya (Taylor Russell) and enlists her to tutor him. He also opens up to the school's priest, Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), during weekly confession. Soon, the meds make Adam's voices stop, but they also make him feel depressed, all while his supportive single mother (Molly Parker) gets closer to a new partner (Walton Goggins).
Is it any good?
A cynic might see this as another sick-kid YA drama, but thanks to a talented ensemble, this coming-of-age film is about more than mental illness and gives agency to the person with a diagnosis. Freudenthal, working off a screen adaptation by Peter McNulty, depicts Adam's schizophrenia as a sort of living Inside Out, with the three characters personifying different personality traits. It's a relatable way to approach the topic and in keeping with the book (with some tweaks that work better on-screen). Plummer and Russell -- who were both wonderful in Looking for Alaska and Waves, respectively -- give nuanced and powerful performances as Adam and Maya. Their friendship and then relationship aren't based on a terminal-illness urgency or any typical high school cliché.
Like many teen films, Words on Bathroom Walls has a compelling soundtrack, this time courtesy of Grammy-winning EDM duo The Chainsmokers, who composed their first film score for the movie. The pulsing beats mirror Adam's emotions and stand out particularly when he's happy (cooking, with Maya or his mom) or upset. And the adult supporting cast is almost unexpectedly good for such small roles. Props to the filmmakers for portraying the close bond between Adam and his mom and for tackling the nuanced difficulties of creating a blended family. Parker is always wonderful, and it's a pleasure to see Goggins, so at ease with heavies and scoundrels, playing a truly good guy. Words on Bathroom Walls continues to show that Hollywood is much better at turning out quality adaptations of contemporary, realistic-fiction young adult literature than the much harder to capture sci-fi/fantasy adventures.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the various secrets people keep in Words on Bathroom Walls. Why do you think Adam and Maya had difficulty being completely honest and vulnerable with each other?
Is there a stigma associated with having a mental illness? Why? Is it worse among teenagers? What can we do to combat shaming those with mental illness?
Talk about the scenes of bullying and other violent behavior (and thoughts) in the movie. How is it portrayed? Does realistic violence make a different impact than stylized or fantasy violence?
Talk about the role of faith and connection in the scenes between Father Patrick and Adam. Why is their relationship important?
- On DVD or streaming: November 17, 2020
- Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Andy Garcia, Charlie Plummer
- Director: Thor Freudenthal
- Studio: Roadside Attractions
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Character strengths: Compassion, Empathy, Perseverance
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: mature thematic content involving mental illness, some sexual references, strong language and smoking
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: November 17, 2020
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