Review: Coming-of-age clichés done right

Gretchen Lee—Staff Writer 

The “sick teenagers in love” story has been rehashed almost twice a year since the release of The Fault in Our Stars in 2014. Most of the subsequent movies have felt like increasingly bland renditions of the same tropes thrown into a blender with no satisfying result. When I heard about Words on Bathroom Walls, I figured this movie would be the usual fare. I was, thankfully, very wrong.

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Words on Bathroom Walls follows the story of Adam, a senior in high school recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. After accidentally injuring another student during his first major episode, he switches to the local Catholic high school and meets Maya, the class valedictorian who he hires to tutor him. As he navigates this new friendship, his new treatment plan, his desire to get into culinary school, and his increasingly tense relationship with his stepfather, Adam learns about what it means to allow people to love even the darkest parts of himself. 

Despite being full of all the usual clichés in a coming-of-age movie about a teenager fighting an illness, this movie was one of the first I have seen where the tropes actually made sense. The “giving a speech in front of the whole class assembly” moment felt realistic because of a logical setup for the moment. Similar things could be said of the “first kiss” and the “you deserve someone whole to love you” moments; there was logical momentum leading up to these scenes that kept them from feeling like clichés. 

Outside of its superb handling of tropes, this movie shone in a number of ways. The cinematography was expert, with camera angles perfectly matching the mental state of the main character. The director chose to have the audience see events from the perspective of Adam, revealing his black and white interpretation of the world and allowing the audience to fill in the gray areas in between. An excellent score also supported the stellar camera work. 

The characters were realistic and unique, from Maya’s sharp and honest wit to Adam’s sarcastic-but-not-overly-moody tone. 

Although the entire film was framed from Adam’s perspective, the other characters were relatable and human; and even when Adam told the audience that his mother was pushing him away, the audience could still see her struggling to remain close to her son and relate to his emotions. 

Additionally, the handling of mental illnesses and schizophrenia was elegantly and honestly done. The film addressed the topic in a way that helped the audience understand Adam’s struggle with his illness but refused to sugarcoat or trivialize these difficulties that real people struggle with every day.

Another element of this movie that surprised me was the subtle, but positive representation of Christianity. Adam doesn’t believe in God, but the Catholic high school he attends is never villainized or made to seem “preachy” simply for being Christian. Throughout the story, Adam becomes friends with the priest who serves during student confession and mass. This priest encourages Adam to seek God, but also looks to help him outside his spiritual battle by getting to know him personally and creating a relationship with him. In a world where Christianity in movies is either brushed over, set up to look overly perfect, or made to be an antagonistic force, the portrayal of Christianity in this movie and the kind, honest priest character were a breath of fresh air.

Overall, this is a coming-of-age movie that succeeds in many ways few other films have and was a pleasure to watch. Hopefully other coming-of-age movies in the future will take Words on Bathroom Walls as an example to be emulated.

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