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Finding the truth in ‘Words on Bathroom Walls’

With the slowly building acceptance of mental health topics among our generation, it was only a matter of time before a young adult romance featuring a mentally ill protagonist burst onto the Hollywood scene.

I am unbelievably happy to announce that the first film born of that eventuality does not disappoint.

“Words on Bathroom Walls,” an Aug. 21 comedy-drama release featuring Charlie Plummer as protagonist Adam Petrizelli, is a breathtakingly candid film that doesn’t shy away from the more unappealing details of life with a mental illness.

Adam is a teenager who we see using his love of cooking to cope with the struggles and angst of teen life. Soon after his mother’s boyfriend, Paul, moves in, things blow up – quite literally, from Adam’s perspective.

This chaos is then quickly revealed to be Adam’s psychotic break. After he is swiftly diagnosed with schizophrenia, the audience begins to realize that the narration of this film is actually his retelling of events to his therapist.

Next, we see a montage familiar to any young person who’s been diagnosed with a mental illness: frazzled relatives touting self-help books and talking about support groups, an alphabet soup of drug names, a mess of unpleasant side effects, the terror of proposed clinical trials and the well-intentioned but entirely too painful moment when you realize your family has hidden every sharp object in the house.

Adam starts a new, promising medication and tries to start over at a new school. This clean slate lasts all of ten minutes before he stumbles upon Maya, a strong-willed valedictorian-to-be with more side hustles than smiles and a secret of her own. Despite her initial aversion toward him, it soon becomes clear that she is his only ticket to graduation.

The rest of the film chronicles Adam and Maya’s journey toward graduation, realizing their feelings for each other as they grow closer, all while the negative side effects from Adam’s medication begin to outweigh their originally wondrous benefits. (Finally, a piece of mental health media that isn’t afraid to joke about how common anal leakage is as a potential side effect.)

This film also features a charming cast of supporting characters, including a trio of loving but often-at-odds hallucinations, a stern nun whom we see starting to come to terms with fear and doubt and a priest whose voice is as soothing as his “solutions” are ambiguous.
While I loved this film and the way it maintains a loving, hopeful undercurrent while refusing to shy away from the more painful truths of life with mental illness, I would be remiss not to admit that there were several moments that I found to be too intense to watch alone.

I was grateful to have my partner beside me. As such, I’m putting forward trigger warnings for anxiety and paranoia, discussion of suicidal ideation, a near-death incident and a depiction of (temporary) institutionalization.

In keeping with the honest tone of the piece, the ending of the story isn’t what some would consider perfect. There are still compromises to be made and regrets to be had, but Adam comes out the other side with a group of loved ones who choose to continue to love and support him, even when things are difficult, and the knowledge that he should never feel alone.

Love. Support. Acceptance. That’s the best happy ending that people like him and I, mentally ill and managing it, could ever want.

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