Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 23, 2018)
With 2020’s Words on Bathroom Walls, we get a “Young Adult” movie that views teendom through the prism of mental illness. High school senior Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) wants to pursue a career as a chef when he graduates.
However, one day during chemistry class, Adam experiences a severe hallucination. This leads to an accident that injures another student, and the school expels him.
Desperate for answers, Adam’s parents seek treatment for him. This leads to a schizophrenia diagnosis.
To finish his high school career, Adam goes to a small Catholic academy. There he hopes to keep his schizophrenia secret until he can close out the term, but a burgeoning relationship with outspoken classmate Maya Arnaz (Taylor Russell) challenges his processess.
As a 53-year-old man, I can remember high school – sort of. I graduated 35 years ago, and that leaves me far from in-touch with today’s teens.
Which means I find myself in an awkward position when I review movies explicitly aimed at teens, as this leaves me decades outside the target market. Still, I believe a good film is a good film, and that shouldn’t depend on the age of the viewer.
Unfortunately, Words doesn’t offer a particularly good film. While not a total loss, the flick tends to plod and never become an engaging view of its themes or characters.
Words walks a fine line, as it doesn’t want to treat Adam as a freak, but it can’t figure out how to portray him in a better light. While the movie pontificates and lectures, it doesn’t turn Adam into a real character, as he feels more like a mix of theatrical tropes than a realistic teen.
As for Maya, she exists as nothing more than a standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She appears here to motivate Adam, and any additional movement feels gratuitous.
Sure, Words gives Maya her own arc, but this feels superfluous. Any focus on her comes across due to a sense of cinematic obligation, and the filmmakers barely bother to cobble together much for Maya to do other than bring Adam out of his shell.
It doesn’t help that Words makes Adam an awfully “showy” schizophrenic. I get that it needs to turn him into a fairly severe case for dramatic purposes, but it does those with schizophrenia a disservice, as it leads viewers to believe all sufferers show Adam’s extremes.
Perhaps the movie’s main flaw comes from its basic dullness, as it lacks the ability to create interesting characters and situations. The filmmakers rely on the theatrics of Adam’s hallucinations to do the heavy lifting.
This leaves the movie without much real dramatic core. Rather than develop involving roles or plot elements, Words just hopes that Adam’s impaired visions will pack enough of a punch to maintain our interest.
They don’t, and this leaves Words as a fairly lackluster character piece. Basically a standard “coming of age” tale with a gimmick, the movie tends to drag and never find a groove.