Adam likes to cook. He wants to go to culinary school and become a chef. High school is OK but he has problems there. He likes his mom but isn't thrilled about the guy she's dating. He has typical teen angst, but his is a bit more serious — Adam (Charlie Plummer) has schizophrenia.
Based on the young adult novel by Julia Walton, director Thor Fredenthal handles "Words on Bathroom Walls" with just the right touch of seriousness but never letting it get so heavyhanded that the film spirals down a rabbit hole.
He keeps intact Walton's showing of understanding that there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. Adam has to hide who he is because part of who he is is a kid with a mental disability that he has little control over.
Walton's book was squarely aimed at young adults but Freudenthal doesn't let his film get trapped in the teen genre.
It's the strong cast, too, that adds the depth needed to keep this as feature film from the sap of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Plummer finds the heartbreak in Adam, ticked off at being thrown this wicked curve ball. And he makes sure he genuinely bonds with his alter-ego pals, the people in his schizophrenic visions – his stoner, oversexed "best friend," the zen of the new age influenced girl that also lives in his head (AnnaSophia Robb) and a tough-guy bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) who always wants to bust some heads.
Not everyone is friendly, though, and that's where Freudenthal makes the personal the emotional and the scientific the reality.
Adam hears voices and has horrid hallucinations. After he causes a disaster in a science class, the school doesn't want to deal with his odd behavior anymore.
He only has a little ways to go to get to the end of the year and be on his way to what he thinks will be the road to normalcy. To be free of the demons when he is cooking.
"Everything disappears and I get to be exactly who I want to be," Adam says.
When he transfers out of the school after the disturbing scene in a science lab, there's a Catholic school that will take him in the middle of the school year.
This is where boy meets girl. Maya (Taylor Russell) is harboring her own secret. With the two of them trying to hide what they think will shatter their bond from each other, as happy endings go, it's the thing that holds them together.
Andy Garcia is a surprise that pops in towards the middle of the film as the empathetic clergy, who becomes an available ear for Adam.
It's another layer to add into why this coming-of-age movie hits so many right notes.
With such strong characters, the weaker ones show up as thinly dimensional. Adam's mother (Molly Parker) is overly doting amid the constant nagging of having Adam takes his medication and Walton Goggins as her boyfriend hides knives. The surprise twist at the end doesn't save this character from itself either.
Those two are easy to write off because there's so much else to feel in this film in a time when emotions are all over the place. "No one wants to grant our wishes," Adam says of kids with mental illness, envying kids with cancer who get to go to Disney World.
"Words" makes a point in showing double standards of how those with mental illness are marginalized. There are subtleties that get the message out without plastering it on a bumper sticker. One of the most tender moments between Adam and the moviegoer is, without any words spoken, he peers out the window of a bus and sees a man talking to himself, acting wildly crazy.
It's the beauty of those kinds of intimate moment that makes "Words on Bathroom Walls" not a lecture on mental illness, but a universal story of the search for a life of meaning without any obstacles.
"Words on Bathroom Walls" is now playing in most movie theaters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Not all theaters are open during COVID closures, so check listings