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Film of the Week: Words On Bathroom Walls (Cert 12, 112 mins)

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A teenager struggles to come to terms with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Picture: PA Photo/Sony Pictures Releasing/Jacob Yakob
A teenager struggles to come to terms with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Picture: PA Photo/Sony Pictures Releasing/Jacob Yakob

Available from March 15 on Amazon Prime Video/BT TV Store/iTunes/Sky Store/TalkTalk TV Store and other download and streaming services

Starring: Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian, Beth Grant.

Witty, introspective high school student Adam Petrizelli (Charlie Plummer) is diagnosed with schizophrenia, which manifests as a pervasive, spider-like darkness that leeches into his waking visions.

Voices in his head take the form of three distinct, competing personalities: hippy chic free spirit Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb), sex-obsessed teen Joaquin (Devon Bostick) and baseball bat-wielding thug The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian).

When he is very unwell, he hallucinates a scary horror-movie voice: a sinister growl that tells him to do things that will hurt him and endanger others. Some might find these characters quirky or obvious, but the incessant noise in his head is effectively done.

A psychotic break in chemistry class leads to expulsion from school and Adam transfers midway through his senior year to Saint Agatha’s Catholic academy.

The youngster’s trials create friction between his doting mother Beth (Molly Parker) and his new stepfather (Walton Goggins) who hides the kitchen knives and tiptoes around.

Meanwhile, at the academy, sassy valedictorian Maya (Taylor Russell) catches Adam’s eye but he is reluctant to share the truth about his mental health.

Based on the young adult novel by Julia Walton, Words On Bathroom Walls strikes a pleasing balance between honouring and subverting the conventions of a coming-of-age story.

In a year when mental health has been elevated in the public consciousness, director Thor Freudenthal’s moving drama is a timely call to arms for compassion and understanding for those who are suffering in isolation.

Screenwriter Nick Naveda addresses the lead character’s schizophrenia with sensitivity and wry humour, employing visual cues as a cinematic shorthand for a complex and potentially frightening condition.

Plummer deftly navigates the inner turmoil and mood swings of his alienated 17-year-old.

His sympathetic, finely calibrated performance is matched by the luminous Russell as a spunky classmate, who understands the delicate art of concealing deep-rooted pain.

Stories about teenagers are particularly compelling because the struggles of adolescence are universal; they are inherently heightened and therefore inherently dramatic. In addition to the intensity of hormones and separation from parents and intense emotions, there’s the pressure of the restricted, hothouse environment of home and what Adam calls “the unforgiving ecosystem that is high school.” Adding mental illness to the story heightens it further and provides another level of pressure and confusion.

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