The teen drama shot in 2018 that helped the Port City film industry will be released in theaters Friday, even though North Carolina theaters have yet to reopen
WILMINGTON – In one crucial way, the new film “Words on Bathroom Walls” is a lot like its central character Adam, a teenager recently diagnosed with schizophrenia.
He wakes up every day to the hallucinatory symptoms of his illness, which have manifested three wildly divergent personalities that act as his spiritual guides of a sort. There’s also the matter of the malevolent voice that hides in the shadows and clips away at his resolve to be more than his diagnosis.
Then, like any teenager, there’s the typical internalized pressure not to make a fool of himself in front of the effortlessly cool classmate he’s crushing on.
These are all battles waged in Adam’s head, invisible to everyone around him.
Similarly, the film about Adam’s story, which opens in theaters Friday more than two years after shooting in Wilmington, is also facing an invisible and formidable foe – COVID-19.
When it opens this Friday, “Words on Bathroom Walls” will become one of the first new movies to hit theaters since the pandemic began. But its release comes with a big asterisk – most theaters across the country have yet to reopen.
Theaters in North Carolina remained closed under Gov. Roy Cooper’s halted Phase 2 reopening, meaning local film crews who worked on the film and residents looking to catch the latest product of the local industry will have to wait until at least September to see the film – or travel across the South Carolina border to the one Cinemark Myrtle Beach theater showing it beginning Friday.
In other words, this is not the world into which director Thor Freudenthal pictured his film finally being released.
“It is strange, that’s for sure,” Freudenthal said Thursday on the eve of the film’s debut. “None of us expected it to be this way. I want people to see it, but I want people to see it safely. No movie in the world is worth risking your life for.”
The film, which is based on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, stars Charlie Plummer as Adam, a good kid dealt a bad hand. His illness has forced him to move schools in his senior year, jeopardizing his chances of getting into his dream culinary school. But as Adam tries to treat his symptoms with a new drug at a prestigious Catholic school, he also finds something new to tether him to reality – his driven and daring classmate Maya (Taylor Russell).
It also stars Molly Parker as his empathetic and devoted mom, Walton Goggins as his uncertain stepfather, Adam Garcia as a wise priest and Wilmington’s own beloved character actress Beth Grant as the strict headmistress of his new school.
Well before the film arrives in front of the audiences able to see it, Julia Walton was given plenty of sneak peeks and was proud to learn the core message of her book translated well to the big screen.
“(Screenwriter) Nick (Naveda) wrote an amazing script that preserved the heart of the novel,” Walton said. “It was important for me to know that love is still a major part of the story and it is there on the screen. Even though love is not a cure for mental illness, people who deal with it are worthy of love and a support system around them.”
Walton, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., wrote the first chapter of the book sitting in her cubicle at an insurance agency in a job she hated, with only a notepad by her telephone as her outlet for all the ideas percolating in her head.
“It just kind of poured out of me while I was supposed to be checking insurance policies,” Walton said. “I didn’t have any idea what the story was or where it was going, but when all these ideas came together and I understood who Adam was, I realized this had to be someone dealing with schizophrenia.”
A few years later, Freudenthal plucked Walton’s book from a pile of soon-to-be-published novels in his agent’s office.
He read it cover to cover in less than a day.
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“I dove in and instantly fell in love,” he said. “Julia did such a good job at representing this illness in a unique, new and accessible way, through a character that is atypical to how people with schizophrenia are usually depicted in popular culture. He is neither a mad genius nor a psychotic killer. He’s a teenager with hopes and dreams and other attributes by which he defines himself.”
Although it was an independent film, “Words on Bathroom Walls” was a saving grace for the local film industry.
When it settled on Wilmington as a filming location in the spring of 2018, the region hadn’t had a studio-produced movie since the N.C. General Assembly made drastic cuts to the state’s film incentive program in 2014, a move that almost instantly sent production companies looking for other places to film.
Revisions to those legislative changes through 2016 slowly reopened the door for interest from Hollywood.
In a way, the film was one of the first projects to put local film crews back to work at home.
When location scouting for the shoot, Freudenthal said he was immediately taken with how well the city paired with his vision for the film.
“Wilmington and this film were destined to be together,” he said. “I think when I saw the town, specifically the older center and the historic buildings, I recognized that I wanted somewhere you wanted to be as a viewer. With some of the stresses and darker parts of the illness at the center of our film, I wanted those to be offset with a world you feel would have the backbone, humanity and warmth that would support this character and the family around him.”
The film began its 25-day production in early May 2018 and Freudenthal said the incredible work of the local crew helped them keep a break-neck pace.
For the director, Wilmington fills a supportive but not overpowering role in the story, with hallowed places like St. James Episcopal Church and St. Mary’s Catholic School playing host to Adam’s school life.
Airlie Gardens and the Wilmington riverfront offer scenic escapes to explore his burgeoning love story with Maya; and several local restaurants including Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria give him a place to feed his dream of being a chef.
“I like to think of Wilmington as a beautiful and humble costar,” Freudenthal said.
The two-year wait time that’s kept local crew anxiously waiting to see the finished product was due, in part, to the inclusion of popular pop duo The Chainsmokers, who worked on the score of the film.
Freudenthal said the film was wrapped up and ready to go last fall, then the pandemic threw a wrench in the release.
But slim pickins’ at the theater this weekend could actually work in the film’s favor. It’s only new competition this weekend will be “Unhinged,” a violent road rage/revenge film starring Russell Crowe.
When given the choice, Freudenthal hopes audiences who can safely go to the movies will identify with the story about someone trying not to lose their sanity to something out of their control – a familiar battle in the age of COVID-19.
For Walton, the wait has been worth it because the end result was all she hoped for and more.
“Seeing it come to life, I never imagined this for my story,” Walton said. “It is an out-of-body experience some days when I think about how I dreamed this up. My kids are too young right now, but I can’t wait for them to watch it someday.”
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at [email protected]