WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS (2020)

August 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very little outside ‘the norm’ is required for teenagers to ostracize one of their own. Sometimes it’s a haircut or a brand of shoes, or even some other minor detail that sets them apart. But when it’s a mental illness, the tribe can be merciless. Director Thor Freudenthal (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, 2010) takes on Julia Walton’s 2017 novel, with a screenplay from Nick Naveda. The film features two rising young stars and addresses some of the challenges brought on by the uncertainties associated with a mental illness.

Charlie Plummer (so terrific in LEAN ON PETE, 2018) stars as Adam, a high school senior who has dealt with the challenges of undiagnosed mental health issues since he was quite young. His father abandoned the family years ago, and Adam’s devoted mother (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”) is not only patient and loving, but also committed to researching any possible treatment that would lead Adam to a better life. On the other hand, Adam and his mother’s new live-in lover Paul (Walton Goggins) don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on things, leading to more anxiety for Adam.

In an interesting and unique approach, director Freudenthal allows us to not only hear the voices Adam hears, but also see the hallucinations and visions he sees – three of whom are Rebecca (AnnaSophia Robb, THE WAY WAY BACK), a sweet, hippie-ish optimist; The Bodyguard (Lobo Sebastian), a cigar-chomping, bat swinging he-man; and Joaquin (Devon Bostick), an inappropriately horny ‘best friend from a 90’s move.” On top of that, there is a black mist that periodically manifests, enveloping Adam and bringing on crippling fear and isolation. After a years-long stream of drug therapy, Adam is pronounced “treatment resistant” and diagnosed as schizophrenic. Adam’s only mind-calming escape is when he’s cooking. He knows his way around the kitchen and his goal is to attend Culinary School after graduation.

One day, Adam has a psychotic break during Chemistry class. He gets expelled, which jeopardizes his Culinary School dream. His mother gets him admitted to a Catholic School run by Sister Catherine (Beth Grant) at the same time he is accepted into an experimental drug trial. He’s allowed to stay in school as long as he takes his meds and maintains his grades. It’s here where he meets the dynamic Maya (Taylor Russell, WAVES, 2019). Maya is smart and ambitious and proud, and the two quickly form a bond – an interesting bond between two smart high school kids carrying their own burdens and holding their own secrets.

Sister Catherine is balancing the specific needs of Adam with her responsibility to the school, and then there is also prom and graduation to deal with. With the new drug, the voices and visions disappear, but Adam has some issues with the side effects. A desperate plea for help from Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), the school priest, provides a boost as Adam tells him, “It’s nice to be listened to and not just observed.” That line provides significant insight into what it’s like to have this affliction, and that’s really where the movie excels … putting us in the shoes of a schizophrenic and allowing us to experience the good and bad moments. What can Adam trust? His eyes? His ears? His mind?

Adam and Maya are both trying to figure out who they are, at the same time learning what it really means to love someone. Adam refers to his illness as his “burgeoning insanity”, and in fact, schizophrenia does have a history of accelerating over time once it strikes a young person. The movie succeeds in taking away some of the mystique of mental illness, by making it approachable and something we want to better understand. There is a visual reference to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that might be a bit too “nail on the head”, but Freudenthal’s movie is profound and features two very talented young actors. The humanity beneath the surface of those society would rather pretend don’t exist is effectively compared to those stricken with cancer … those we would do anything for. I watched this film back-to-back with another teen-drama-romance new release entitled CHEMICAL HEARTS, and it’s extremely rare to find two such thought-provoking films centered on a pair of high school students … but quite a treat (although I believe all 4 actors are long past high school age).

Being released on August 21, 2020 in THEATERS ONLY

watch the (entirely too long) trailer:


WAVES (2019)

November 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether in sports or music or movies, watching talent blossom and grow is wondrous. For movie lovers, this describes young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, whose first feature film KRISHA really grabbed me at a film festival in 2016. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), and now with only his third film, Mr. Shults has delivered an even more ambitious story with wide-reaching impact, yet he remains true to his intimate and personal approach. In fact, with WAVES, he basically delivers two brilliant films in one.

A terrific opening credits sequence takes us inside the life of a teenager. There is constant motion, laughter, the longing for independence, and signs of responsibility and structure. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, LUCE, 2019) is a high school student, talented athlete, pianist, son, brother, and boyfriend. He’s living an upper-middle class life in a beautiful home with his dad (a powerhouse Sterling K Brown), stepmom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (breakout star Taylor Russell). His dad owns a construction company, and is tough and demanding as a parent, incessantly pushing his son to do and be more. His fatherly advice comes in the form of telling Tyler that black men have to work harder than white ones … never stopping to give praise or affection. He’s the type of father who challenges his son to arm wrestle while in a restaurant and critiques his wrestling match victory by telling him the lesser opponent should have been dispatched much quicker. The pressure is relentless, though offered with the best intentions … a college scholarship and a successful life.

Tyler’s stepmom is loving and supportive, and his sister Emily is very sweet and quiet, living in the shadows of big brother. Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) seem to have a good relationship and Tyler appears to be dealing with the pressures. But then, as is common with life at this age, things go sideways quickly. A shoulder injury, self-medication, and Alexis’ late period bring this ideal world crashing down on Tyler. Just when it seems things can’t get worse, they do.

Shults’ film is really two love stories separated by a tragic line. Whereas the first half belongs to Tyler, the second half is owned by his sister Emily. Dealing with a situation and emotions that should be beyond her maturity level, Emily proves how strong she is, and how the heart can always respond to compassion and caring. She meets one of Tyler’s ex-teammates Luke (yet another brilliant Lucas Hedges performance). Luke is socially clumsy and 180 degrees from being a smooth-talker, but he’s smitten with Emily and offers her a lovely, if unlikely, companionship. First love is almost always awkward and watching these two navigate is quite charming and heart-warming. A road trip leads to bonding and a better understanding of each other.

As the film shifts in focus and tone, characters are pushed to emotional limits. The film offers snapshots of moments without disturbing the flow or Shults’ commitment to rich texture. The photography from cinematographer Drew Daniels is creative and varied, and adds much to the presentation. Music is also vital here. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds the perfect touch, and the soundtrack contrasts the tastes of today’s generation with what the parents relate to (Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”), even forming a surprising connection at one point. For other fans of Shults’ film KRISHA, you will enjoy a quick scene with Krisha Fairchild as a high school teacher.

Proms, pregnancy, parties, pills, and parents are all common topics for films dealing with teens, but this one digs deeper than most. It’s based in south Florida and is quite the stylish and heartfelt drama, slicing open the traits that make us human. A lifetime of good decisions builds a foundation, and one or two bad choices can topple all the good ones. When Tyler and his teammates are pumping up before a match with chants of “I cannot be taken down!”, we all know that life can absolutely take you down. Tyler learns this lesson in the harshest of ways, while his sister Emily deals with the aftermath. Themes of acceptance and forgiveness give this the feeling of the work of a much more experienced filmmaker, but evidently Trey Edward Shults is just this talented.

watch the trailer: