Producer Pete Shilaimon Talks About “Words on Bathroom Walls”

As Theaters Reopen After Months of the Pandemic, Focus Is on Mental Health

(photo: Roadside Attractions)

“If you have someone in your life who is in this situation, just be there. Listen to them. Open your heart.” Pete Shilaimon is talking about schizophrenia. “The message I want people to get,” he told the Register, “is compassion. Compassion. Compassion.”

Shilaimon is producer of Words on Bathroom Walls, a new film about one of the biggest and most often overlooked issues facing youth today: mental illness. Especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, young people may find themselves feeling isolated and scared. Young Adam, the main character in Words on Bathroom Walls (played by Christopher Plummer), is a case in point; but Adam's problems go beyond what the average high school student may experience. Adam has schizophrenia. “When you have cancer,” young Adam says in the film, “people are so eager to grant any wish you have. But when you have schizophrenia, people treat you differently.”

Adam is quick-witted and goal oriented (he aspires to become a master chef), but his schizophrenia threatens to derail his dream. As his disease advances, Adam experiences visual hallucinations, including quirky characters which each represent a part of Adam's complicated personality: Rebecca, a sweet, soulful and sexy sprite; Joaquin, a sex-driven teen boy dressed only in an unbelted robe and underwear; and The Bodyguard, a hulky protector with a baseball bat. In the middle of his senior year of high school, a psychotic episode during chemistry class ends life as he knows it, and Adam is expelled from school.

Adam is placed on a new and experimental drug which brings his hallucinations under control, although not without side effects. Although he doesn’t believe in God, Adam is accepted at a nearby Catholic school where he meets and falls in love with Maya (Taylor Russell), and where a kindly priest, Father Patrick (Andy Garcia), offers the guidance he needs.

Words on Bathroom Walls is not a faith-based film, but Pete Shilaimon was proud of its distinctly Catholic elements. “Think about it,” Shilaimon explained.

No schools would take Adam, but the Catholic school would. So right there, you understand that they will take a troublemaker.... They want to help him in any way they can. The nun is hard on him because she wants him to succeed. The priest wants him to live a long and full life.

Shilaimon recalled attending Catholic schools as a youth, growing up in his native Iraq and in Greece. He regretted, though, that he’d never met a priest to whom he could go in the way that Adam connected with Father Patrick. “Some of the most beautiful moments in the film,” Shilaimon said, “take place in the church, in the confessional.”

What happened between the priest and the troubled young man was not a true confession, since Adam lacked faith (and may not even have been baptized). But Father Patrick’s willingness to meet the student where he was at, to be there for him and to draw him toward a greater truth, is inspiring. When Adam finally graduates, Father Patrick is watching at the edge of the stage. “He winks at him,” Shilaimon says, “and you feel like Adam has someone watching out for him, caring for him. Through the character [of Father Patrick], he finds his voice, he finds his strength.”

Shilaimon believed that the film could help to shine a light on the serious problem of mental illness. “For me, it was eye-opening,” he said.

Like so many others, I had no idea what people with schizophrenia go through and experience every day.... That woke me up to things I had experienced with my dad.

Schizophrenia devastates a person's mind. I had no idea, before this film, that many schizophrenic people end up homeless and on the street. We don't take care of people who are going through a tremendous darkness. We depend on pills, which mostly don't work with these patients. And so many schizophrenic patients just end up living on the street. It's devastating.

After months of sheltering in, as communities begin to open up while still wearing masks and maintaining social distance, an evening at the movies promises to be a welcome change. Words on Bathroom Walls (rated PG-13) opened Aug. 21 in theaters.