A plurality of movie theaters reopens in Tarrant County this week. Along with so much else, the coronavirus epidemic has shifted the parameters of my job. Before, I had to judge whether a given film was worth your time, the ticket expense, and the trouble of getting out of your house. Now, I have to think about whether it’s worth risking your health. Some people would say that no film is worth that risk, which I understand. Me, I think that an auditorium that’s one-third full with all spectators masked is safer than a packed concert or sports event or classroom. That and my sense of professional obligation are why as long as the multiplexes are showing movies, I will be reporting on them. I will not be in the seat next to you or anyone else for the foreseeable future, but I will be there. This is what I do.
Enough about me; to this week’s subject, Words on Bathroom Walls is not a particularly powerful or ground-breaking film about a teen dealing with mental illness, but it has its moments. The film — and the Julia Walton novel that it’s based on — take the title from the homophobic graffiti that Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) sees at his new Catholic high school. Those words may or may not actually be there, because Adam suffers from schizophrenia and was kicked out of his previous school for attacking a fellow student. All the various drugs he has tried have done nothing for him, and it’s only when he cooks elaborate dishes for his mom and stepfather (Molly Parker and Walton Goggins) that the voices in his head go away temporarily. Culinary school seems like the next logical step, but Adam has to graduate first, and the dominos start tumbling when he falls for the school valedictorian (Taylor Russell) and tries to hide his condition from her.
Adam does try an efficacious new drug, and one thing I like is how the film shows why a patient might go off meds that seem to be working; the pill makes the voices stop, but it also gives Adam a bevy of unpleasant side effects, the worst being the loss of his sense of taste. Director Thor Freudenthal (who did Diary of a Wimpy Kid) brings Adam’s hallucinations to life, and too often they land on cute and whimsical, as when Adam attends a parent-administrator conference and sees the school principal (Beth Grant) and her office on fire. The decision to have Adam’s voices portrayed by actors — a hippie girl who embodies his higher conscience (AnnaSophia Robb), a bro in boxers who represents his sex drive (Devon Bostick), and a baseball bat-wielding mobster who personifies his violent impulses (Lobo Sebastian) — doesn’t pay off like it should. The movie is better when it becomes harrowing, as a disembodied Satanic voice says things like, “You’re ruining your mother’s life. You’re not the son she wanted.” Later, when Adam consults with a priest (Andy Garcia) for guidance, the voice comes out of the priest’s mouth and tells him to commit suicide.
The best reason to see this is the two leads. After praising Russell’s performance in last winter’s Waves, I’m delighted to find that it wasn’t a one-off, as she exudes sharp-elbowed confidence at school but then suddenly looks very small when Adam tracks her down at the home that she’s ashamed to come from. She’s matched by Plummer, a third-generation actor (his grandfather, Christopher Plummer, portrayed his grandfather in All the Money in the World) who looks assured whether Adam is happily chopping vegetables or in the grips of his delusion and screaming, “You poisoned my brain!” at his stepfather. The chemistry between these two means that Words on Bathroom Walls works better as teen romance than as mental illness drama. That will hold up regardless of where you see it.
Starring Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell. Directed by Thor Freudenthal. Written by Nick Naveda, based on Julia Walton’s novel. Rated PG-13.