Words on Bathroom Walls
Streaming Service: Theatrical
MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 reels out of 5
Words on Bathroom Walls is rare in that it features a schizophrenic person as the protagonist who is not psychopathic murder but a suffering victim of a debilitating mental illness. That alone is worthy of praise, but a film must have more than a good hook in order to be a good film. Words does well with a competent (albeit predictable) narrative, but its portrayal of Catholicism is, unfortunately, mixed at best, falling into the usual Hollywood clichés that have been advanced a thousand times over.
Adam (Charlie Plummer) is an above average teenager in many ways. He is smart, polite, driven, and respectful. He aspires to become a chef and, rather than pay tens of thousands on a useless bachelor’s degree, plans on attending a culinary school. Yet his plans are put on sudden hold when a psychotic episode occurs during chemistry class and a subsequent injury lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Things continue to spiral from there. His father leaves and his mother remarries. He leaves public education to avoid bullying and begins attending the local Catholic high school. Fortunately, a new experimental medicine begins to show signs of hope, but a new baby sister and potential girlfriend promise to complicate his life even further.
Schizophrenia is a terrifying illness, and Words does a good job portraying it for the uneducated (including myself). Visual hallucinations are rare, but necessary for the cinematic medium. Adam experiences three distinct individuals who represent different aspects of his psyche: his sexual drive, his desire to protect himself, and his hope for a better life. While Adam understands these individuals are not real, they are still incredibly distracting. What is more dangerous are the misunderstood emotions of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. All humans have these feelings, of course, but to Adam they are overwhelming. A little spider in the corner of the bathroom, for instance, turns into a ravenous monster bent on destruction. While the medication helps eliminate some of the distractions, they also interfere with his ability to smell and affect his dexterity, which are both essential to his future profession. This provides a terrible dilemma for Adam: because the problem is in his mind, any medication that helps will could also seriously hinder other aspects of his existence.
Negative Catholic stereotypes in American cinema are by now established tropes, but Words has the unfortunate distinction of holding not one but two contradictory stereotypes simultaneously. The principal of Adam’s new school is crusty old nun who is reluctant to accept him but will if he is “on his medication.” When Adam inevitability has an episode, she is quick to condemn and expel him as “unfit” for the school. Like many other Hollywood nuns, she is a hypocrite who claims to be godly but rejects those who need her most. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Fr. Patrick (Andy Garcia), a kind and understanding priest who, despite Adam’s unbelief, listens patiently and offers advice. This seems like a positive portrayal, but on closer examination is only positive because he does not act like a priest at all. Adam visits Fr. Patrick in the confessional, but there is no confession. “We are all broken,” Fr. Patrick tells Adam, “and that’s okay.” Yes, we are all broken—and we know it’s not “okay” The same kind of “wisdom” could come from an atheist shrink or a hip Buddhist. There is no mention of Jesus Christ or redemption, just compassion and acceptance.
As noted, Adam does have an inevitable breakdown where he temporarily allows his delusions to consume him. Fortunately, he is brought back through his ability to understand reality apart from his psychological state, which comes through the love his mother and girlfriend. He accepts that he will never be rid of his illness but can have a “diet of the mind” where he simply refrains from engaging in certain hallucinations and thought patterns. This is a clever ending; it is also the exact same ending as seen in A Beautiful Mind, another (much better) film about a schizophrenic struggling with his illness. The only advantage Words has over Ron Howard’s Best Picture Oscar winner is its accessibility for teens.
Words on Bathroom Walls is a positive step in righting an unjust perception of people with mental illness. Yet it is hard to celebrate the breaking of one stereotype while reinforcing another. In 2020, it seems as though the only films that take religion seriously, such as Silence or First Reformed, view it in a nihilistic fashion. I miss films like Going My Way and Monsieur Vincent, which gave entertaining, sober, and uplifting portrayals of clergy. The only picture of recent memory to do this was The Passion of the Christ, which was enormously successful.
There was one moment, however, that makes the film worth it. The final scene occurs at Adam’s high school graduation. Adam, who was expelled, nonetheless comes onstage and demands his diploma. Adam’s girlfriend and Fr. Patrick convince the principal to acquiesce, and the film ends with a big “Congratulations to the Class of 2020!” Then hundreds of students, all indoors, throw up their caps and hug each other, mask free and with no social distancing in sight. It made me laugh harder than anything this year, then cry—and cry a bit more.