Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth” is sweet, heartbreaking and refreshingly relatable; somehow touching on all the teenage coming of age romance tropes without ever seeming overly honeyed or hackneyed. The characters (for the most part) are well developed, flawed and human, with an admirable and grounded leading performance by Eliza Scanlen and an especially impressive turn as her bad boy lover in Toby Wallace.
The film follows Milla (Scanlen), a strong willed Australian teenager going through the throes of cancer. Her parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) are supportive and undoubtedly loving even if they don’t know quite how to handle the situation, so when Milla develops a friendship with a twenty-three year old drug dealer Moses (Wallace), they go against their better judgement and let Milla pursue the relationship, if only to give her some happiness in the little time she has left.
As the central protagonist, Scanlen is incredible in her nuanced depiction of Milla and balances the teenager’s sense of naivety and innocence (she’s only 16) with her strong desire to flirt with danger and rebel. She’s angry at the cards she’s been dealt and wants to feel as much vibrancy and electricity as possible while she still can; the cinematography in this sense is quite profound, loaded with shots of colour and nature and close up shots of Milla dancing to music – as if everything she is experiencing is heightened. Her romance with Moses is actually quite sweet; she’s giddy when he returns her feelings and crushed when he doesn’t. Toby Wallace as Moses however is I think one of the biggest reasons the film works; there’s something in his eyes which is quite haunting, as if they’re far too old for his face. Though Milla looks to him as older and dangerous, from a different and exciting world to the one she knows, he’s still only just a boy himself and in letting himself love her, has exposed himself to the hurt and pain that he’s taught himself to block out. He inhabits the character totally and completely, everything from his walk to his posture and the tone in his voice is so authentic that I genuinely thought that Wallace had been plucked from the rougher streets of Sydney specifically for this role.
What Murphy does exceptionally well is that while the story is centered around Milla, the film goes into great depth on how her illness is impacting on the surrounding individuals in her life. Milla’s parents aren’t just secondary blips in the story designed to be stuffy and overbearing to make her by comparison even quirkier and more free-spirited. Davis and Mendelsohn are real veterans of Australian film and television and have unmistakable chemistry; neither of them are properly prepared in how to parent Milla as she grows sicker and sicker, they love her and want what’s best for her, even as their marriage (as so often happens in these circumstances) suffers under the weight of it all. This film, more than any other I’ve seen in a while actually, made me believe that the parents here had actually developed over time and had a past and really are just grown up kids trying to figure things out themselves.
Essie Davis especially has some stand out moments throughout the film, notably in a beautiful scene where she buys Milla’s Year 10 formal dress, and you can see the palpable joy in her face as she’s able to share something, even just for a moment, that is sweet and innocent and mercifully normal. Then again in one of the film’s closing scenes, Davis bears the entirety of Anna’s grief and anger and exhaustion in one seriously powerful confrontation in which her cries go beyond human despair and touch something almost animalistic. I liked Henry’s character as well, although I think the writers had a harder time figuring him out and there’s a bizarre flirtation with a crass, pregnant neighbour which made no sense to me whatsoever.
While “Babyteeth” is not perfect, every emotional response feels earned, the characters and their interactions feel genuine and most importantly, I felt like the film portrayed a volatile subject matter with sensitivity and in a way which in my mind, actually fairly accurately represented how the people struck by it would have reacted. Its a sweet, albeit well-trodden story; I laughed, cried and found myself feeling quietly proud of the Australian team that produced such a beautifully authentic insight into grief, death, family and love.
By Jock Lehman