Portable Hell: “Words on Bathroom Walls”

“The mind,” wrote John Milton in Paradise Lost, “is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Perhaps nobody knows that better than people suffering from schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia has been a popular subject for books – and for films based upon those books – and often good for an actor portraying the person suffering from the disorder. To cite just three such films: The Snake Pit (1948), Anatole Litvak’s version of a true story, starring Olivia de Havilland in an Academy Award-nominated performance; Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961 – an original story), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and wide acclaim for Harriet Andersson’s performance; and A Beautiful Mind (2001), Ron Howard’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars for which Russell Crowe received a Best Actor nomination. There are dozens of other films, many more if violence is brought into the picture. Your typical movie slasher is “schizoid.”

Most schizophrenics, of course, are not violent. Nearly all hear voices, and some experience visual hallucinations as well. Such is the case with Adam, a teenager in Thor Freudenthal’s compelling new movie Words on Bathroom Walls.

Psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals often express dismay, as well they should, at the way schizophrenia is portrayed on screen. Because Words on Bathroom Walls is just out, I’ve come across no such criticism of it, although I suspect there will be, principally because the voices Adam hears are visually manifest as people in the film.

Well, the shrinks need to lighten up – or get a movie camera and make their own films, which if they did would probably feature personified voices – especially when these professionals realize it’s the best way for an audience to imagine what it’s like being schizophrenic because cinema, after all, is a visual medium.

Adam, played by Charlie Plummer, has four voices in his head: Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), a kind of mystic flower child; Joaquin (Devon Bostick), a slacker with pretensions to suavity; and a metal-baseball-bat-swinging enforcer (Lobo Sebastian), sometimes accompanied by two henchmen. In the young-adult novel by Julia Walton upon which the film is based, I believe this character is called Mob Boss.

The fourth personification is a deeply sinister disembodied voice – a more classically schizophrenic entity that manifests as a dark, menacing miasma straight out of a Japanese horror flick.

Adam’s mother (Molly Parker) and step-father (Walton Goggins) decide their son will best be served at St. Agatha, a Catholic prep school adjacent to a church of the same name. There, things go from good to bad to worse to total breakdown.

The nun who runs the school (Beth Grant) is initially very encouraging, assuring Adam that at St. Agatha he’ll be accepted for who he is, which is true until it isn’t.

One person who does accept him is Maya (Taylor Russell), a brilliant girl from a poor family who tutors Adam in math, appreciates his dream of becoming a chef, and falls in love with him.

The story of the lives of many schizophrenics is driven in part by medication. Some who suffer from the disease will grow out of it; for others, it’s a lifelong affliction. But in every case, there will be – along with talk therapy – a drug regimen that needs to be followed. And getting the right drug for the specific individual is key – and often problematic. There are almost always trade-offs. Therapy sessions and the challenges of pharmacology are leitmotifs in Words on Bathroom Walls.

That title, by the way, comes from Adam’s hallucinations of the taunting, threatening graffiti he “sees” in an unused Boys’ Room at St. Agatha.

Tension arises between the young (chaste) lovers because Maya tries to disguise her poverty, and Adam believes he must hide his illness. As their relationship grows, both are burdened by concealment; by their lack of honesty; by an unwillingness to trust.

Adam does receive periodic help from a priest, Father Patrick. As played by the veteran actor Andy Garcia, Father Patrick is a welcoming but not demanding counselor. One senses – and this is a Catholic’s perspective (i.e. mine) – that the priest knows that Adam needs to come to Christ if Christ is to come to Adam.

As is the case with many students in Catholic schools, Adam isn’t a Catholic, so the fact that several of his meetings with Father Patrick are in the confessional rings a bit false. On the other hand, that’s where the priest happens to be when Adam wants to talk.

Schizophrenia is a kind of portable prison, if not, in fact, a kind of hell. When he can no longer tolerate the side effects of drug therapy, Adam stops taking his pills. Now he’s walking a high wire without a net. What happens next . . . is what you’ll learn when you see the film.

I haven’t read Mrs. Walton’s book, but I did read a little bit about it. A reviewer for an Evangelical Protestant website wrote that the book contains profanity and sex. That’s true in the film as well – except for the sex: a good decision by director Freudenthal and screenwriter Nick Naveda. (The film is rated PG-13.)

There was something I had to chuckle about when I read that review of the book. Under the heading “Christian Beliefs,” the reviewer wrote, “None.” This is followed by the heading “Other Belief Systems,” which begins: “Adam, who comes from a nonreligious family, attends a Catholic school. He admits, even to a priest during confession, that he doesn’t believe in God.”

Well, now. Where I come from, Catholicism – in schools, churches, among priests, and through the Sacraments – pretty much embodies Christian beliefs.

Words on Bathroom Walls is an important, entertaining film that casts light on a serious and seriously misunderstood affliction. It’s about faith, hope, and love. And persistence.


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.