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‘Words on Bathroom Walls’ goes big on mental health and nearly pulls it off

Taylor Russell, left, and Charlie Plummer in the movie "Words on Bathroom Walls." <span class="copyright">(Jacob Yakob / LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions)</span>
Taylor Russell, left, and Charlie Plummer in the movie “Words on Bathroom Walls.” (Jacob Yakob / LD Entertainment / Roadside Attractions)

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It’s hard to categorize the big screen adaptation of “Words on Bathroom Walls,” Julia Walton’s novel about a teenager’s struggle with mental illness, as the film itself can’t decide if it’s a serious drama about an ill adolescent, a dark, edgy psychological romp, or an off-kilter rom-com. Written by Nick Naveda and directed by Thor Freudenthal, it takes some big swings at a big subject and almost — not quite — pulls it off.

That the film comes as close to succeeding as it does is in large part due to a top flight cast doing impressive work zipping between multiple tones — in some ways reflecting the disease at its center, schizophrenia. Naveda’s script and director Freudenthal make some bold choices, most of which work but have a cumulative effect that weakens the overall impact of the narrative.

Charlie Plummer stars as Adam Petrazelli, a young man with a big secret. For years, he has battled his demons through cooking and gotten so good he’s been accepted to a culinary arts institute. Now, he just needs to graduate high school, which becomes more complicated when he’s expelled after his first psychotic break badly injures a classmate.

Adam initially hears just voices, but these eventually manifest into people he can see. There’s Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a lusty half-naked wastrel who urges Adam to follow his id; the Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a baseball-bat-brandishing, sweatsuit-wearing meathead who just wants Adam to give him the word so he can unleash some rage; and Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a Zen sprite who actually offers Adam some decent guidance in her quest to get him to chill out.

These hallucinatory figures, coupled with Adam addressing an unseen therapist and his visits to a priest (a soulful Andy Garcia) once he transfers to a Catholic school, give these scenes a sardonic edge. As the mood darkens, Freudenthal sprinkles in horror-movie style visual effects to embody the terror Adam experiences, pulling the film in yet another direction.

Teenage schizophrenia is no joke and a dark, surreal Lynchian comedy would have been a tall order, which may be why the other sections of the movie play it so straight. There are heavy moments of melodrama involving Adam’s determined mom Beth (Molly Parker) and her live-in boyfriend Paul (Walton Goggins) as they try to get Adam the help he needs and enroll him in the new school so he can graduate.

At St. Agatha’s, Adam meets and falls for Maya (a terrific Taylor Russell of “Waves”), a valedictorian-to-be with numerous side hustles to pay her tuition. Tutoring turns into something more as the two young leads have great chemistry and would make fine partners in a romantic comedy — territory “Words” veers into when Adam discovers that his super-serious classmate’s favorite movie is “Never Been Kissed.”

Unfortunately, everyone has to return to the reality of Adam’s illness and that’s a very dark (if highly stylized) place. Individual scenes work well, but the tonal shifts begin to wear as the film reaches its climax. The cast, especially Plummer, navigates the diverging paths well, but the genre confusion leaves little room for the movie to maneuver.

Though the film never mocks or condescends, the ending is trite bordering on glib. It’s a fairly wild ride but given the higher stakes than your typical YA title, it feels less than satisfactory.

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