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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

Words on Bathroom Walls: A Necessary Teenage Mental Illness Story

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

It doesn’t matter how old I am, I will always have an affinity for YA stories. Especially those that draw from real life (Harry Potter is the only fantastical YA franchise that I adore). There’s the saccharine type of YA that I tend to draw the line at (Paper Towns no; The Fault in Our Stars at first stung my teenage-soft-boy heart, now it’s too cringe; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the only time Noah Centineo is charming; Me Earl and the Dying Girl was solid; Perks of Being a Wallflower yes). Then of course you have your classic 80s/90s teenage hits (Ferris Bueller, Breakfast Club, Fast Times, Dazed and Confused, Mean Girls, Heathers, Can’t Buy Me Love, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Say Anything, I do not dislike any of these). I do prefer the heavy hitters of adolescent depiction, the ones that remind you that yes, being young is great but it’s also so damn hard. The more real and raw and grittier it gets, the better (I’m talking The Spectacular Now; Edge of Seventeen is one of my favorite movies; The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a must-see; The Hate U Give flew way too far under the radar in 2018; Beautiful Boy was very gripping and beautiful; then there’s the rapturously dark experience of Euphoria, the end-all-be-all of YA stories: raw, unfiltered, unflinching honesty and portrayals, extravagant but very much grounded in reality, an utterly engrossing once-in-a-lifetime show, the essential Gen Z ethos, can’t wait for season two).

Now that I’ve bragged some more about how many movies I’ve seen, let me get to my point: This past weekend saw the release of not one, but two new YA films. I saw both as soon as I could. Both were very similar, one was very better.

Chemical Hearts, on Amazon Prime, based on Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel “Our Chemical Hearts” displays a couple of good performances by Austin Abrams (Euphoria) and Lili Reinhart (also an executive producer for the film) but as a reader and admirer of the book, Chemical Hearts the movie is a stolid disappointment. The damaged girl, the sad boy who tries to fix her, and the “profound” teenage dialogue. It’s all been done before. If you’re looking for a YA tearjerker, just read the book, which manages to make a line like “You’re an extraordinary collection of atoms” less uncomfortable to read than heard in the movie. It’s like the movie stripped all the depth and fresh layers found in the book, added a killer soundtrack, and then ran with the tried-and-true story we all know. Or a better alternative would be The Spectacular Now, which flips the switch. The quiet, sad girl tries to fix the damaged boy. We need more of those. It is worth watching to see Lili Reinhart flex her muscles beyond Riverdale and Austin Abrams is a talent right up there with Timothee Chalamet.

I did not read the book that Words on Bathroom Walls is based on and that may have played a role in my enjoyment of it. Nonetheless, this is the YA film of the year so far. Charlie Plummer (more young talent) is Adam, a high school kid with schizophrenia. A sensitive take on mental health with the requisite romance thrown in (Taylor Russell of Waves, she’s going places). Even with Adam’s hallucinations comically played off as unfunny caricatures (AnnaSophia Robb, where has she been?) and an overly Hollywood ending (one good thing about Chemical Hearts, solid and realistic ending), Words on Bathroom Walls works around it’s odd title for a mental health take with some weight while also working as a fresh high school coming-of-age film. Even the original score by The Chainsmokers (Lol) is decent.

People aren’t defined by the illnesses that afflict them and we claim to know this, yet we still ostracize those with mental ailments. Mental illness appears to be getting its due these days, but there is still work to be done. So when a movie like Words on Bathroom Walls may hammer that nail a little too often throughout the film, it’s a necessary reminder. Instead of shrugging it off, let it be hammered into your head. That homeless person shouting on the street had a chance once, but somewhere along the way they were let down just as we all are in life. With a chemical infliction in the brain, no amount of medication seems to compare to the alleviating effects of honesty, empathy, and love.

That’s why YA films are important, these young adults are the future. Give them a chance. Grace Town (Reinhart) asserts in Chemical Hearts that “being young is almost too much” and that the world “tells us to be ourselves and do our own thing then beats us down for doing just that.” None of it is easy, if only we could give each other the proper support we need. Even for the young ones. They’re always on to something. They should be listened to and supported. Their stories are more than just entertainment ripe with romance, they’re real and filled with truth.

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