Bad roommates are terrible. But when they don’t just share your fridge, but your brain … well, that’s just so much worse.
Thanks to his schitzophrenia, Adam has been hosting way too many characters in his noggin lately. Oh, some mean well enough. Rebecca, whom Adam describes as the “Dalai Lama meets Coachella,” is all about being, like, totally encouraging. The bodyguard (who shows up with a couple of henchmen), is “tempramental, but loyal.” But then there’s Joaquin, who sluffs around in a bathrobe and whispers lewd comments in Adam’s ear, just like a “horny best friend from an ‘80s movie.”
And, lurking in the shadows, Adam hears another, far darker voice: It stokes fears, encourages violence, flirts with annihilation.
That final voice pushed Adam’s special kind of crazy into the bigger, broader world. Startled by the voice’s darkness and the swirling blackness it brought, Adam knocked a beakerful of acid on his science partner’s arm in chemistry class. And that’s bound to attract the wrong sort of attention. So Adam came back to school not as a student, but as the walking manifestation of a mental illness. The bullying got so bad, and the voices in Adam’s head got so loud, that Mom and her boyfriend, Paul, pulled him out of public school and sent him to St. Agatha’s, a private, Catholic school.
The school is, he’s told, his “last chance.” A chance to earn his high school diploma, a chance to go to culinary school, a chance to become the five-star chef he dreams of becoming.
“The only person who can’t reject you is Jesus, right?” Adam quips as he’s interviewed by the school’s head mistress.
But even as he jokes, Adam watches the bookcases behind the headmistress go up in flames as sparks shower her office.
And the dark voice rumbles from the void.
Few movies touch on the mental illness of schizophrenia. Fewer still treat it with both the seriousness it deserves and the compassion it needs. Throughout the movie, Adam makes the case that while he has a serious mental illness, that’s not all he is, or all he should be defined by. When you’re talking about a disease as stigmatized and, let’s be honest, as potentially frightening to many people as schizophrenia is, that’s an important message to drive home.
Schizophrenia, as Adam would surely tell you, is an exhausting mental illness to deal with—both for the person dealing with it directly, and for those close to the one suffering from it. Adam feels like he’s burdening his loved ones with his condition—guilt that the dark voice inside Adam plays like a harp. But those loved ones stand with him—defending him, advocating for him and loving him throughout this story.
Adam’s mother is a particularly staunch supporter. Even when Adam himself has given up hope of a working treatment, Mom never does—exploring new drugs and new treatments as she works relentlessly to give her son a “normal” (or, at least, a more normal) life.
In his new school, Adam meets a young woman named Maya. He doesn’t tell her about his condition: He’s too ashamed of it and likes Maya too much. But even with this big secret between them, Maya becomes both a rock and a refuge for Adam. She tutors him in math and becomes his best, perhaps only, friend in school.
Later, we learn that Maya has her own huge challenges: She comes from a working-class home and her father’s been out of work (because of an on-the-job injury) for months now. Her family counts on her to help keep them housed and fed, so she takes a job as a waitress—working part-time even as she pushes to become St. Agatha’s valedictorian and serves on a bevy of extracurricular committees. Overachiever? Maya is example 1A.
Adam enrolls in St. Agatha despite the fact that neither he nor his family have a particularly strong religious bent. (His mom quips, “Catholics are more about attendance, anyway.”) In fact, he admits to a priest during school-mandated confession time that he doesn’t believe in God. The priest takes that confession in stride.
“So everything I say in here stays between us?” Adam asks.
“And God,” the priest corrects. “But since you don’t believe in God, I guess it’s just us.”
Adam and the priest develop a strong confessional relationship: Adam tells the priest about his life (while omitting the seriousness of his mental issues), while the priest gently tries to steer Adam toward both good decisions and God. He quotes Scripture often (dropping a version of 2 Timothy 1:7, for example: “For God has not given us the spirit of cowardice, but power and love”) and suggests that Adam embrace prayer.
But Adam eventually tires of these enigmatic verses, which he increasingly sees as platitudes—ways for the priest to avoid giving a real answer. And when the priest tells Adam that the “only agenda I serve is God’s,” Adam says, “Could you tell Him to reconsider His agenda? Because it feels like I’m getting the short end of the stick.” (The priest says that he’ll “put in a call.”)
The school’s headmistress, a nun, is a far less sympathetic figure in the film. She says that “moral and spiritual integrity are of paramount importance” at St. Agatha’s. But when she expels Adam after she learns that he’s stopped taking his medication, those in Adam’s corner sees that as a betrayal of those lofty words, and they let her know as much.
St. Agatha’s, we learn, was named after a Catholic saint. Rebecca, Adam’s flower-child schizophrenic voice/character, advocates meditation and deals out a Tarot-card fortune. We see plenty of religious symbols and accoutrements, obviously, including crosses and statues of Jesus. At one juncture, someone snidely suggests that Adam is “a saint.” Adam tells Maya that attending a cheese camp (that is, a cooking camp dedicated to cheese) was a “spiritual experience.”
In a school bathroom, Adam sees graffiti proclaiming, “Jesus loves you.” Then, underneath it, someone has written, “Not if you’re a homo.” (Adam smirks at the friction between the two statements and at what he sees as hypocrisy.)
Adam and Maya kiss a few times, but their relationship doesn’t seem to go further than that (at least on screen). We can’t say the same for Adam’s mother, who announces that she and boyfriend Paul are expecting a baby. (Adam’s father left his family several years earlier, we’re told.)
Joaquin, Adam’s amorous, bathrobe-wearing schizophrenic voice, sometimes tosses out some pretty ribald comments. He encourages Adam to “get laid,” for instances, and when Adam first sees Maya, Joaquin tells Adam to not “get too excited down there.” Because Joaquin never closes his robe, we see a good chunk of Joaquin’s exposed torso—and his boxer-style underewear—throughout.
Adam asks the priest whether he mainly hears students confess to masturbation. (The priest points out that the school is filled with teenage boys, and tacitly suggests that masturbation is no big deal “as long as they don’t do it in here.”) Maya sometimes wears outfits that bare a bit of cleavage and leg. The two go to a screening of the romcom Never Been Kissed.
Adam’s real problems begin when he knocks a beaker full of acid on a friend’s arm during chemistry class. The resulting acid burns look awful. Later, when Adam begins attending St. Agatha’s, he lies to Maya and tells her that he was kicked out of his last school because of a really bad fight he got into.
He and Maya later see a few boys from Adam’s old school: The ringleader throws a drink at Adam, and the two push each other. One eventually gets punched in the face.
Adam’s schizophrenic character, the bodyguard, carries a baseball bat in most of the scenes he shows up in. He (the bodyguard) is sometimes joined by a couple of henchmen, and the bodyguard sometimes asks Adam whether someone needs a little “lesson.” But when the bodyguard does literally swing into action, he often (but not always) swings at empty air.
Adam himself rarely shows any violent tendencies at all, but the fact that he is schizophrenic scares those around him. Paul removes all of the knives in the kitchen, for instance—forcing the family to use plasticware during dinner instead and handcuffing Adam’s love of cooking. (Adam laments that as soon as people hear that you have a mental illness, some imagine that you’re “Jeffrey Dahmer,” a reference to the notorious serial killer.)
The dark voice in Adam’s head is far more destructive. It pushes Adam to think of himself as a worthless, broken burden. And sometimes, when Adam talks to others (such as the priest or Paul), the voice manipulates Adam into thinking that they’re telling him (for instance) to harm or kill himself. (Some of Adam’s schizophrenic hallucinations can be scary and violent, too, such as the burning office mentioned in the introduction.)
[Spoiler Warning] That voice, and the movie’s circumstances, eventually reach a climax at prom. Adam swallows a whole bottle of his meds before going, which sends him careening out of control. He pushes down the headmistress (and pushes other students) before he staggers up to a catwalk and falls off. He later wakes up, briefly, in an ambulance as the paramedics fight to save him. He then finds himself in a hospital room, looking much the worse for wear.
Adam tells someone that St. Agatha had her breasts hacked off.
One f-word and about 10 s-words. We also hear “b–ch,” “d–n,” “p-ss,” “sucks” and “crap.” God’s name is misused about five times, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Early in the film, we see a montage of Adam taking an assortment of antipsychotic medications (none of which, he tells us, worked). Adam begins a new trial medication about the same time he enrolls in St. Agatha’s. The meds prove far more effective than some he’s tried in the past, but they cause side effects that Adam hates, and he eventually stops taking them. Adam also takes prescription medication in a psychiatric ward—lifting up his tongue to prove to the faculty that he’s actually swallowed the pills.
Adam’s schizophrenic bodyguard smokes a cigar.
Adam lies to Maya about quite a few things, including his schizophrenia. He passes off his oddities—his ever-present hats, and sometimes sense of distraction—as symptoms of chronic headaches. He lies to his mother, too, pretending to take his medication while secretly chucking the pills away. But he’s not the only one who lies.
Maya runs a “side hustle” at school, helping needy and rich students cheat for a price. She also lies to Adam and his family—pretending to live in a swank house when, in reality, she and her family live in a modest dwelling on the other side of town.
Adam also discusses some of the side effects of his medication in graphic detail. He describes the problems he has urinating because of his hand tremors. He knows that another side effect is diarrhea, and worries about that, too. (Diarrhea is mentioned elsewhere, too.)
“The Lord embraces all children,” says St. Agatha’s headmistress. “Even ones with challenges.”
People aren’t nearly as accepting.
The streets are filled with individauls suffering from mental illness, and Adam suggests that it’s often because society can’t, or doesn’t want to, deal with them. He’s seen evidence in action: How his classmates turned on him in his own school. He sees other examples inside his own home. Paul, Adam says, seems scared to death of him. And Adam believes that his mom’s boyfriend is looking for any excuse to ship him off. For Adam’s own good, Paul would surely say.
But as much as Adam accuses society of callousness, he’s not free from guilt himself.
If it’s true that some try to distance themselves from him. But Adam aids and abets that tendency by pushing people away, too. He believes he’s a burden; he imagines that the lives of those he loves would be so much easier—so much better—without him in the picture.
In Adam’s journey, we can see echoes of our own—even if we’re not dealing with the sort of illness that he is. We, too, can be overwhelmed with our own guilt and insecurities. We can all feel as if we’re failing the people around us. If we’re failing math or lost our job or slowly seeing the inevitable declines that age brings, we can feel like burdens. We can imagine, however briefly, that folks would be better off without us.
It’s a lie, of course—the sort of lie that Jesus came to this Earth to free us. And I loved the emphasis that the movie placed on the idea of confession. To admit what we see to be our failings is a huge first step in dealing with them and pushing past them. Honesty is one of our most effective, if underused, curatives.
And we should be mindful that the headmistress got it right, but I might put a little twist on the emphasis: God embraces all children, especially the ones with challenges. And let’s face it: We all have challenges.
But for all its strong messages, Words on Bathroom Walls isn’t the sort of film that everyone can or should embrace. The language alone can be tricky to navigate. Adam’s fractious relationship with religion, and the priest’s flippant tone, might set some teeth a-grinding or require some thought and discussion to navigate. This movie can frank, crass and difficult. But for those who engage with it, Words on Bathroom Walls has something to say.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.