The 1999 Drew Barrymore romcom “Never Been Kissed” is referenced multiple times in “Words on Bathroom Walls,” with the older film cast in a rosy Proustian glow that may come as a jolt to any viewers who remember the 20th century. Fully 21st-century teens Adam (Charlie Plummer) and Maya (Taylor Russell) describe it as a “classic” and a “cinematic masterpiece” with equal parts affection and irony, believing themselves a little smarter than its cozy high-school movie clichés. So does “Words on Bathroom Walls,” in ways that sometimes pay off strikingly.
A teen movie for the generation of mental health awareness, this slick, well-acted adaptation of Julia Walton’s popular YA novel complicates typical coming-of-age stakes and obstacles with the disorienting realities of the hero’s diagnosed schizophrenia, giving unusual, anxious treatment to the genre’s standard set pieces — from dreamy prom night to rousing graduation speech — along the way.
Yet Thor Freudenthal’s film isn’t quite as clear of Hollywood formula as it may think: It’s still one of those teen movies where even social outcasts are more beautiful, clear-skinned and on-cue witty than real life usually permits them to be, where adults come through with wise, perfectly scripted counsel in the nick of time, and where the admirable depiction of a complex, frightening psychological condition is still leavened by simpler love-conquers-all sentiment. If “Words on Bathroom Walls” hits you in the heart in the end — thanks in no small measure to the radiant gifts of Plummer and Russell — there’s a sheen of glibness to be peeled away first. In his first feature assignment since 2013’s “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” Freudenthal hasn’t quite the directorial delicacy to elevate proceedings to “Perks of Being a Wallflower” levels of intimacy and personality, but “Words” should find a devoted young following — if not in theaters, where it’s scheduled to open on Friday, then eventually on VOD.
Nick Naveda’s suitably wordy screenplay honors its literary source with extensive reliance on the wisecracking voiceover of Adam — presented as confessions to a psychiatrist we never see. A smart, socially awkward high school senior, he’s just looking to survive the year, whereupon he can enrol in culinary school to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a Michelin-grade chef. It’s a plan made less straightforward by the unpredictable mental breaks and blackouts caused by his schizophrenia, manifested on screen as surges of swirling, spidery black smoke that swamp everyday scenes. The inner voices that plague him, meanwhile, appear as three distinct personalities — new-agey good fairy Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), skeezy lothario Joaquin (Devon Bostick) and a surly unnamed bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian) — who offer him conflicting advice at moments of crisis. It’s a device that might seem a bit tidy for the interior chaos it represents, but “Words on Bathroom Walls” does offer a more evolved understanding of schizophrenia from the lurid split-personality melodramas of yore.
When one particularly violent episode gets him expelled from his school, Adam is offered a fresh start at a strict Catholic academy — on condition that he sticks to the latest trial medication of many sought by his loving, desperate mom Beth (Molly Parker), and share his psychiatric evaluations with austere principal Sister Catherine (Beth Grant). A warm light in this unwelcoming new environment comes in the form of valedictorian student Maya, who turns out to be a different kind of misfit in this privileged, conformist institution: When she agrees to tutor Adam to bring his flailing grades up to scratch, it doesn’t take long for teenage nature to take its course. Yet even as they grow closer, Adam can’t bring himself to tell Maya about his schizophrenia, while upheaval at home — via the seemingly frosty presence of his new stepdad Paul (an excellent Walton Goggins) — sets his mental health even more waywardly off course.
While Plummer’s charismatic performance adeptly expands and contracts with his character’s wildly shifting moods and states of consciousness, Russell — the standout player in Trey Edward Shults’ recent “Waves” — works electric wonders with a more thinly conceived character. The kind of 16-going-on-36 good girl who could easily become an aggravating fantasy figure, she’s given a bit of behind-the-eyes darkness in Russell’s bright but wounded interpretation: Here’s a girl who works visibly hard at her perfection. If you can see early on where things are headed between them, at least Plummer and Russell’s natural connection makes sense of the inevitable.
The occasional surprises in “Words on Bathroom Walls” emerge not from what happens, but how: Even as it follows the general timeline of many a senior-year drama, its emotional peaks and valleys don’t always land as we’ve been led to expect. A promposal is played not as a gushy moment of joy but an evasive anticlimax, while a heartfelt public confessional seemingly builds to an explosion of applause that, it turns out, never comes. Freudenthal and Naveda subvert movie-world logic in these and other ways, though their film isn’t wholly located in our world either: Michael Goi’s high-gloss lensing and The Chainsmokers’ ever-present, on-trend score contribute to a heightened reality in which everyone is the most vivid, articulate version of themselves possible — down to Andy Garcia’s patient, empathetic, too-good-to-be-true priest Father Patrick, who becomes for Adam the private sounding board that therapy doesn’t provide.
“I was looking forward to our ‘Good Will Hunting’ moment,” Adam snarks to his unseen shrink, but he kind of gets one with the Father anyway. It’s another instance of “Words on Bathroom Walls” — titled for the abusive slogans Adam envisions around him in one particularly paranoid breakdown — attempting to have its cake and eat it, calling out the falseness of many a tear-jerking catharsis in the movies, while taking some warm-and-fuzzy emotional short cuts of its own. There are pockets of truth, grace and pain in this portrait of troubled adolescence, and its talented young stars know where to find them; like many a nervous teen, however, the film itself is caught between standing out and fitting in.