Words on Bathroom Walls


(2020) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Andy Garcia, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Evan Whitten, Drew Schend, Jared Bankens, Reinaldo Faberlie, Aaron Dominguez, Cruz Abelita, Ellie Dusek, Sean Michael Weber, Dominique Hayes, Linzi Gray, Julianna Barkas, Ashley Victoria. Directed by Thor Freudenthal

There was a time when made-for-TV movies tended to feature a “disease of the week.” That trend has finally made it to Young Adult novels and the movies based on them.

Here the disease is treatment-resistant schizophrenia. It’s the sort that manifests itself in sounds nobody else can hear and sights nobody else can see – visual and auditory hallucinations. The condition is admittedly fairly rare, but as it is a fairly dramatic mental disease, makes for good fictional fodder by author Julia Walton, adapted here by screenwriter Nick Naveda.

The afflicted party is Adam (Plummer), a high school senior with aspirations towards culinary school. For Adam, the hallucinations take the shape of three humans – the oily Joaquin (Bostick) who represents his libido, the free-spirited Earth mama Rebecca (Robb) who represents his good intentions, the burly bodyguard (Sebastian) who represents his fear, and a swirling black cloud that represents the chaos inside him.

He has successfully hidden his condition from friends and school administrators until a breakdown in a chemistry class leads to a horrific accident. Adam is summarily expelled as a danger to other students, and eventually ends up in a strict Catholic school, whose principal Sister Catherine (Grant) informs Charlie and his desperate mom (Parker) and her new boyfriend Paul (Goggins) that the condition for acceptance into the school is that Adam stay on his new drug treatment, and keep the school apprised of his progress in therapy sessions (in a nifty twist, Plummer plays the therapy sessions to the camera, putting the audience in the role of psychiatrist – well, at least we critics had pen and notepad handy to further reinforce the illusion).

Adam aims to lay low and keep his head down until graduation so that he can achieve his dreams, but he is having issues with his math class. Enter Maya (Russell), the class valedictorian who has some hidden issues of her own, who agrees to tutor Adam for a princely sum. Teen hormones being what they are, Adam soon falls for the fetching Maya who in turn begins to develop some affections for the good-hearted Adam.

But the meds that Adam is on are affecting his taste buds, and a budding chef can’t have that, so he ditches the meds which is the kind of decision you’d expect a teen to make – with predictable results. With Adam teetering on the edge of losing everything, can he keep it together long enough to get through to graduation?

The movie plays it safe on most subjects, preferring feel-good moments to gritty realism with some exceptions (as when Adam encounters a clearly potential older version of himself on a bus, talking to himself). Throw in the usual teen movie clichés – the feeling of being an outsider, the different-is-okay message that goes against the teen instinct for conformity, the awkward attempts at romantic connection, the prom disaster, and the graduation speech that Solves Everything. There are the straight-arrow adults who Don’t Understand, and the unexpectedly hip adult mentor/role model – in this case, Andy Garcia as Father Patrick, a combination of Sigmund Freud, Yoda and Father O’Malley of The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The movie is largely saved by an attractive cast. Plummer and Russell are two of the better actors in the teen movie genre, and they not only deliver solid performances separately, they also have great chemistry together. Parker is terrific as the mama bear who fiercely defends her cub, even against himself, and Goggins is particularly wonderful in a small but important role as the stepdad with whom Adam has a contentious relationship. It is also nice (and fitting) to see Robb and Bostick, both teen movie mainstays not long ago but who have moved on to more adult roles.

One of my issues with the film is that it uses Adam’s mental disease as almost a gimmick; yes, there are those who suffer through these sorts of hallucinations but I would have liked to see a more common form of schizophrenia that more kids suffer from and that they might relate to better. It’s a very difficult subject to tackle, mental illness is, and I’m not sure there’s a good way to do so without feeling like exploitation.

This is one of the first films back in theaters after the major theater chains have reopened, which will work in the film’s bottom line favor. Likely it would have been lost in the late summer shuffle of blockbusters and back-to-school releases. Currently, it is only available in theaters so for those in places that have not allowed theaters to reopen, or for those who are not comfortable with going out to theaters quite yet, you’ll have to wait a bit to catch this one at home.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances by Plummer and Russell particularly, but also Goggins and Parker.
REASONS TO AVOID: Full of teen movie clichés while at times trivializing the mental illness subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and serious adult themes regarding mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker and Russell play mother and daughter on the Netflix series reboot of Lost in Space.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ravage

For Ahkeem


Attitude is everything.

(2017) Documentary (Transient) Daje Shelton, Antonio, Judge Jimmie Edwards, Tammy Shelton. Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest

There are those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that All Lives Matter, not just black ones. Of course they do. The issue is that sometimes white America, particularly the institutions of law enforcement and education treat the African-American community with such contempt that reminders are necessary.

This documentary follows young African-American teen Daje “Boonie” Shelton. She’s a typical young girl in North St. Louis; she has friends she hangs out with, she likes boys and as far as school goes, meh! But Daje has some anger issues; she gets into fights at school and now she’s being expelled. She stands in front of Judge Jimmie Edwards, her mother Tammy at her side and Judge Edwards essentially tells the two of them that despite mom’s pleas for one more chance, Daje has run out of them. She has one option and one option only: to enroll in the alternative school that he helped found, the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA) which specializes in helping at-risk youths transition from the criminal justice system into the education system and break the endless cycle of jail, release, jail, release that besets so many African-American teens.

Daje is extremely reluctant to go but her mom and Judge Edwards impress upon her that her only other choice is to drop out and find a job and this Tammy is adamant that Daje avoid. Daje is a bright girl who has a shot at going to college and Tammy is encouraging her to go. Little by little, Daje begins to blossom at ICA and become more self-confident and even as she struggles with math, she has a good chance at graduating and getting into college. With the help of counselors and teachers who believe in her, Daje learns to shine.

She also meets a boy named Antonio and from the moment they lock eyes they’re joined at the hip. Antonio has even more difficulty handling school than Daje and eventually drops out. Shortly thereafter Daje discovers she’s pregnant. The odds just got a little tougher but she perseveres, taking care of her pregnancy as well as school. Once she gives birth, she’s all about her baby boy Ahkeem. Everything she does is for him.

The baby daddy though is making a lot of bad decisions that put him in jail and on probation for a variety of crimes. Even though he professes when Ahkeem is born that he will get  a job and support his son so that he has the opportunities he himself didn’t have, he fails to follow through and instead gets arrested for being involved with a stolen vehicle and then caught with enough marijuana while on probation for the first crime to get arrested again.

Daje has a whole lot of attitude and not very much in the way of accountability when the documentary begins. The problems she has, according to Daje, are not her fault and yet Daje makes a lot of very poor decisions. The a-ha moment for me though was when I considered raising my own son at her age; he was also prone to making some pretty poor decisions. Unlike Daje and Antonio, he had far more opportunities to get his act together. He didn’t have the police breathing down his neck treating him like a criminal just for ambling around the neighborhood. When you treat someone like a criminal, they are far more likely to become one.

The filmmakers remain unobtrusive (although I’m sure that they made quite a stir at ICA) and nonjudgmental throughout. They present Daje’s life as it happens. They had no way of knowing that she would get pregnant (although statistics say that the potential was relatively high) and no way of knowing that she would graduate (which statistics said was far less likely). What happens to Daje happens to a lot of African-American women – her mother relates a very similar story which is why she is so adamant that Daje go to college. The filmmakers simply document and that is the essence of a documentary. My hat is off to them.

Daje in many ways is the face of African-American teen girls. She faces the same challenges, has the same hopes and dreams and survives the same environment. Despite the presence of Barack Obama in the White House when this was filmed, she knew very well that she was part of a system that was broken and yet there wasn’t much will in the corridors of power to do anything to fix that system. Now, with a new President and control of the legislature and the Supreme Court in the hands of men who seem to have little or no incentive to fix things in the African-American community, the outlook is even bleaker.

Leaving the screening for this film, I found myself wondering what sort of chance Ahkeem has at all. It took some time and reflection to consider that the problem isn’t just Ahkeem’s parents; it’s the environment that he lives in. During the course of filming, a young man named Michael J. Brown was shot in nearby Ferguson, sparking nationwide protests and giving rise to Black Lives Matter. Daje has a notebook which is littered with “R.I.P.” notices for fallen friends, most victims of gang and drug violence and she herself carries the scar of a bullet wound. The life expectancy of a young African-American man is not very long and the opportunities for escaping the cycle of poverty and crime not very many. For those opportunities to arise, white America will need to learn to perceive African-Americans differently. Documentaries like this one will help in doing that.

REASONS TO GO: A true slice of life of the issues African-American teens are facing today. Filmmakers take a nonjudgmental approach and are unobtrusive throughout. We get to watch Daje grow and blossom over the course of the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the choices Daje and Antonio make will frustrate you. May be uncomfortably grim for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers, both white, followed Daje around for her Junior and Senior years of high school.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Girl Flu

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation