The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
“When you have schizophrenia, people can’t wait to make you someone else’s problem,” says Adam, the main character in Words on Bathroom Walls.
“Unlike cancer patients, no one wants to grant our wishes.”
The importance of mental health and its treatment has grown in the conversation at dinner tables and diner booths in recent years. So has its presentation in cinema. The past taboos and stigmas are fading. It is more common to see family and friends band together to share the load with their loved ones, showing compassion and patience. It is this approach that Words on Bathroom Walls takes as well. I was eager to dive into this film, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is not a tale of sadness, but a gripping and moving story.
Tackling schizophrenia with the rocky terrain of the teenage experience should be handled with grace, and director Thor Freudenthal does just that. He cradles his scenes with tenderness and humor. The subject matter isn’t always comfortable. He shows this by allowing his shots, blocking, and coloring to send signals when things are bad and when it's all clear. He doesn’t shy away from portraying the darker manifestations of the disease with ominous cloudy apparitions, creating an almost horror film atmosphere. This is an on-the-nose approach without being cheap or gimmicky.
I appreciate these small tone shifts, as they reflect the push and pull that schizophrenia has on the mind. Virtually every tool in the filmmaker arsenal was employed here, from a well-executed “vertigo” shot to a few Dutch angles. It was if Freudenthal had a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Good Will Hunting, and Shutter Island before attending a storyboard clinic for YA book adaptations.
A young man named Adam (Charlie Plummer) gets expelled from his high school after his psychosis causes an accident, hurting his friend. He gets transferred to a Catholic high school to close out his senior year, allowing him to graduate and thus be able to pursue his dream of attending culinary school. He’s not a Catholic, but this school is his last option.
“Catholics are more about attendance anyway,” his mom jokes.
The deal Adam has with this new school is he must take his medication and keep his GPA up. He meets a sassy student named Maya (Taylor Russell). She is cute, smart, and intimidating, hustling test answers in the boy’s room for money. Adam becomes smitten quickly. His trouble with focusing causes his grades to slip. Enter Maya to the rescue. She tutors him for a price, and Adam rewards her with his cooking. Quickly, their romance blossoms and she brings out his confidence. They both harbor secrets from each other. Adam hides his illness; Maya’s side hustle is actually helping put food on the table at her own house. Her secret is being poor and ashamed. Adam figures this out and doesn’t care. A particularly charming scene involves Maya sneaking Adam into the restaurant she works at and letting him loose in the kitchen. Where others may see kitchen appliances as tools, metal, and buttons, Adam sees a workbench for masterpieces. One thing this film does well is make you hungry for exquisite cuisine.
Adam’s hallucinations are characters themselves that add humor, dark and bright, to their moments on screen. Adam’s new medication makes them disappear, but the pills also remove his desire to cook. He quits taking them, fearing he is losing what he feels is the best version of himself. This conflict coupled with the dynamic of his mother’s new ostensibly dubious boyfriend (Walter Goggins) moving in dial up Adam’s stress, threatening his love for Maya and his plans for the future, but I won’t divulge much more. The beats of this film are very predictable, but the characters are so rich and engaging, it doesn’t matter.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
This entire cast was charming and fun. Adam’s hallucinations acting as parts of his conscience blend well into every scene they occupy. Goggins plays it coy, leaving his intentions ambiguous. A real treat was Andy Garcia as a priest. He was funny and helpful, challenging Adam to believe in himself, even as Adam decries God and his purpose. The banter between Adam and Maya is cute and snarky. Molly Parker as Adam’s mother conveys real pain and real love, representing the millions of parents who never stop until they find their children peace.
Charlie Plummer as Adam carries this film with such confidence. It would’ve been easy for him to go overboard with the premise, but he keeps himself grounded enough so we can empathize properly. The dialogue was cinematic without being hokey and real enough without being stale. There is a lot of humor in this script which is juxtaposed well with the heavier moments.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
'Words on Bathroom Walls' ended with a win, and I was cheering.
One aspect that is underutilized in a conventional teen dramedy is the application of compelling visuals. Adam’s hallucinatory attacks are conjured via levitating objects, smokey tapestry, and... words on bathroom walls. This was a way more interesting approach to display Adam’s visions and feelings, and it worked remarkably. There is almost a comic-book element to some of the effects rendered on screen. Instead of taking me out of the movie, they pulled me further in. They’re used sparingly, which I appreciated.
Words on Bathroom Walls (2020) | CINEMAS
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
From an audio perspective, everything works here. The pop group The Chainsmokers can now beef up their resume, with this being their maiden voyage into scoring films. Their score gives a soft bounce and nuance, complimenting the distance Walls has from its peers with handling this subject matter. There are even a few older songs that sneak onto the soundtrack that are positioned just right.
In many ways, this movie is one I’ve seen a hundred times before. Exploring teenage life has been commonplace in cinema for decades at this point. There are so many parts of this film I figured out well beforehand, but I didn’t mind in this case. It was fun watching the characters unfold and grow; I was rooting for them the entire way. It walks the line with melodrama without fully going overboard.
“I have an illness, but I’m not the illness itself.”
Adam’s journey is one among many who may feel alone in understanding their affliction. More than a couple scenes touched a nerve in me, and I was indeed moved by them. It was a bit like watching a football game where you know your team is going to triumph. You need to see them make that one special play or kick that field goal, and then it's time to celebrate. Much is the same in this case. Words on Bathroom Walls ended with a win, and I was cheering.