By Jacob Sahms
Charlie Plummer is an actor on the way up. He’s tackled heavy subjects in his teenage acting career, from Lean on Pete to All The Money in the World. But under the direction of Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), Plummer tackles mental illness, manifested as schizophrenia in the highschooler Adam, the focus of Julia Walton’s book of the same name.
Like the Netflix series The Healing Powers of Dude, which is aimed at a younger audience than Words on Bathroom Walls, the mental and emotional struggle that the protagonist (in this case, Adam) experiences are manifested visually and physically for the audience to see. There’s a protective personality shown as a trio of gang members that threaten to fight anyone who shows themselves to be combative with Adam; there’s a sexually-stimulated personality who shows up like a “horny college roommate,” egging Adam on to sex even while Adam is trying to figure out what love looks like; there’s a discombobulated voice shown as black mist that pushes Adam toward suicide, telling him over and over again that he’s useless. Anyone who has ever wrestled with any form of anxiety, depression, or degree of mental illness can see the way that the unseen struggle becomes seen thanks to the way the film depicts it.
While Adam finds himself in Catholic school with a “last chance at normal education,” his mother (Molly Parker) engages in a relationship with a new beau (Walter Goggins), while Adam seeks friendship with a smart, lost schoolmate, Maya (Taylor Russell). As Adam’s mother becomes increasingly desperate to find a solution, Adam finally seems to find a way through, only to see his new happiness threatened. While Maya still want to be around him if she knows the truth about how his brain works? Will Adam be able to thrive in normal society, and become the cook that his family knows that he can be?
There’s an interesting smaller role played by Andy Garcia, Father Patrick, who seems to show up whenever Adam is at rock bottom. He explains the point of confession as an opportunity to be honest with oneself and God – to admit that we’re flawed – to face the things we know need to change about our lives. He doesn’t push Adam into faith but continues to share Biblical truths with Adam, while also being incarnational – he’s present even when Adam thinks he’s unlovable, as God’s presence in the story. While it would be easy to see the focal anchors of hope in Adam’s life as his mother and Maya, Father Patrick’s steady, timely appearances remind the audience that God is never driven out by the other voices, that Father Patrick embodies this truth: God will not leave us or forsake us.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been reminded again and again of 2 Timothy 1:7, a Scripture that Father Patrick shares early with Adam: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Whether it’s mental illness or something else that anyone battles with, the spiritual truth of this remains as relevant as it was when the author of the letter wrote it. We are called to stand with each other – the “us,” not one person alone – against everything that we face, and to remind each other that God’s love remains with us in every moment.