Review: A spectacular miss, Words on Bathroom Walls nails its coffin before it barely begins.
About ninety minutes into Words on Bathroom Walls, the lead character, Adam, boldly touts that “being ambiguous doesn’t make you profound, it makes you full of shit.” Inadvertently breaking the fourth wall, Adam is not only responding to the fluff of others but also indirectly addresses how the film is so preoccupied with how much it wants to say that it ends up saying absolutely nothing at all.
Directed by Thor Freudenthal, Words on Bathroom Walls centers around a schizophrenic teen named Adam, played by Charlie Plummer, who tries to wrangle his mind long enough to graduate high school and enroll in culinary school in the fall. In the midst of this, he is facing a step-father that he presumes wants him locked up in an asylum, a Catholic school that is weary of his very presence, and characters in his mind that only shut up when he takes his medication. This film had the potential to be something more for a mental illness that has seldom representation in coming of age stories. It even has moments of light humor that are rare in mental illness centered teen films. However, for the most part, it feels less like an original film and more like a John Green movie formula where you insert a problem and hope it sticks. Well, it doesn’t even hold onto the wall long enough to make any real impression at all.
The lackluster writing combined with the eighty minutes worth of meandering scenes is incredibly unfortunate given the talent that the cast possesses. Taylor Russell, who is riding off her critically acclaimed performance in last year’s Waves, works with what she has as Maya. However, because what she has isn’t even a crumb, her underutilization is a cruel joke at points. However, where the real tragedy lies is with Plummer, who was a revelation in the 2017 film, Lean on Pete. If there was any feeling of direction at all, Plummer could have lifted this movie to at least mediocre status. It feels like sabotage on the director Freudanthal’s part as Plummer tries his best to hone in on this incredibly complex and nuanced subject matter. You can tell he cares about this story and is putting in as much as possible for someone who is getting minimal guidance behind the scenes. A scene in a hospital room is an obvious stand out in the film as Adam is strapped onto a bed, wrestling with the incessant voices in his mind while being embarrassingly aware that Maya is seeing him do so. Even with a semblance of reverence seen in his performance, it is otherwise completely lost due to the camera work, script, effects, and direction.
If this film didn’t already feel like a fever dream with the trippy effects, the multiple characters being projected out of Adam’s head, and the messy pacing, get ready for The Chainsmokers’ original soundtrack. Their music appears like a jump-scare in a horror movie, completely out of left field and only for superficial effect. During one particularly harrowing scene at Adam’s prom, where a character is ODing, a song that sounds like it came out of an EDM algorithm starts to play over a descent into potential death. More fitting for an American Eagle store playlist, it feels like a personal mocking of the character.
It’s hard to believe that this movie was not made in 2013 and then shelved for seven years. This film is playing dumb with its audience. It’s giving teenagers a morsel of a movie that has been made over and over again and trying to make the case that this is breaking boundaries. You can’t make a movie about something of this subject matter and fumble the ball so severely that it looks like you didn’t give it a real shot in the first place. The question this movie begs is where teen movies go from here. Are they forever destined for these social issue-driven big worded monologues for the rest of time? Or will there be a future where teen movies have experimentation and true substance again? If this movie was released even five years ago there might have been a place in the canon for it. Now, it’s just signaling the end of a generation’s teen films, defined by a time we are light-years away from now.