At times “Words on Bathroom Walls” feels like an earnest teen comedy in the mode of the John Hughes movies or the recent “Love, Simon,” with upbeat original techno-pop music from the Chainsmokers to the smart and flippant protagonist narrating his own story to the obligatory cafeteria and school dance scenes, to the sweet romance between two seemingly mismatched kids from different worlds who meet-cute and clash at first but eventually discover they have …. yes … far more in common than anyone would have thought.
Just as often, we’re plunged into a horror/fantasy story as the main character is mocked and scorned by an unseen tormentor with a mechanical-baritone voice, is visited by a trio of imaginary friends and experiences terrifying hallucinations in which people and rooms are set on fire and ominous black smoke envelopes the room.
These drastic shifts in tone are intended to illustrate what life is like for high school senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer), who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and never knows when he’ll experience another episode in which his hands will start to shake and he’ll hear voices and possibly even turn violent as he tries to escape from demons that exist only in his head.
Based on the novel of the same name and directed by Thor Freudenthal, “Words on Bathroom Walls” is clearly intended to be a respectful and thought-provoking take on mental illness, with no sugarcoating of the devastating effects the disease has on not only Adam but those who love him. It has more than few tender and touching moments, whether Adam is tentatively entering into a romance with a brilliant girl named Maya (Taylor Russell), who has a secret of her own; literally confessing to the kindly Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), or clashing with his mother (Molly Parker) and her new husband (Walton Goggins), who only want what’s best for Adam — even if they might not always know what’s best for him.
All well and fine. Unfortunately, the road gets far too rocky in the hallucinatory scenes, as we meet Adam’s imaginary friends: Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a slightly smarmy, typical teen movie best pal, who urges Adam to act on his romantic impulses; the menacing “Bodyguard” (Lobo Sebastian), who wears a track suit and wields an aluminum bat and is always warning Adam of impending danger, and Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a flighty hippie type. They’re caricatures and they’re distracting, and while this device might have worked in the novel, it is ineffective here. Also, a couple of late dramatic moments ring false and overwrought.
Charlie Plummer and Taylor Russell are sweet and wonderful and authentic as Adam and Maya, and reliable veterans Molly Parker, Walton Goggins and Andy Garcia turn in fine work as well. “Words on Bathroom Walls” has its moments and its heart is in the right place, but the missteps are too many and too big for the story to carry the day.