Review by Sean Boelman
Typically, the young adult romance adaptation is not a particularly inspired genre, but Thor Freudental’s take on Julia Walton’s novel Words on Bathroom Walls is an unexpected exception to that rule. Charming and surprisingly ambitious, this has its cheesy moments, but is a mostly enjoyable entry in an overstuffed genre.
The film follows a teenager who, after a meltdown and being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, moves to a new school where he hopes that an experimental treatment will allow him to blend in amongst the other students. Admittedly, the movie’s exploration of mental disorders is a tad shallow, but the depiction here is much more honest and nurturing than usual.
The level of humanity with which writer Nick Naveda treats his characters is a big part of what makes the film so sympathetic. Blending this discussion of big ideas with a rather traditional coming-of-age arc results in a story that, while not particularly original, radiates with a feeling of authenticity.
If the movie does suffer from one thing, it is that the script is trying to juggle too many storylines. The romance, his school troubles, and his struggles with his disorder are all intriguing and necessary aspects, but there are additional threads about his passion for cooking and a tumultuous life at home. At a certain point, it all becomes a bit much.
As is the case with most films that involve a character with a disability, much of the focus is put on destigmatizing the feeling of “otherness”. It’s an important message, and it’s delivered in a way that is consistently compelling. There are certainly a few moments that are a bit on-the-nose, including the overly sentimental ending, but the story hits all the right notes.
The movie also benefits from having a wonderful cast. Charlie Plummer is excellent in the leading role, even handling the more difficult material subtly and effectively. Taylor Russell continues to prove that she is one of the most talented up-and-coming actresses working, with a scene-stealing performance. And in supporting roles, Andy Garcia and Walton Goggins both have some excellent moments.
Freudental does some interesting things with the film’s form in an attempt to translate the protagonist’s experiences to the screen in a cinematic way. Although it’s obviously dramatized, it obviously comes from a place of good intentions. And in trying to do something more ambitious, Freudental makes his movie stand out among the traditionally very sanitized genre.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a flawed film, but the charm of the script and the power of the cast really shine through. It’s rare to find a teen romance that is both as enjoyable and heartfelt as this.
Words on Bathroom Walls opens in theaters on August 21.
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