“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” says Essie Davis around the halfway mark in Babyteeth, and at first it’s hard to disagree. Based on a 2012 Australian play, Shannon Murphy’s first feature revolves around a seriously ill teenager called Milla who falls hard for an older drug dealer. After initially discouraging their romance, Milla’s parents come to realise that Moses makes their daughter feel more alive than ever, embracing the chaos he brings into their lives.
It’s hard not to approach a synopsis like this with at least some scepticism. After all, Hollywood has long sought to romanticise terminal illness with Romeo and Juliet flourishes; but fortunately this is no Hollywood story.
Our ‘starcrossed’ lovers first meet on a train platform where Milla is physically taken aback by Moses before suffering a surprise nosebleed. From that point on, pain and absurdity define their relationship on equal terms, and this balancing act extends to Milla’s dysfunctional family too.
In fact, humour and suffering are intertwined in almost every frame of Babyteeth. Scenes where Milla’s father electrocutes himself or when her mother trips out on prescription drugs at dinner balance tragedy and comedy far better than the typical teen films inspired by Shakespeare.
This makes Babyteeth a tough one to categorise and the film’s better for it. Far more than a ‘terminal illness’ movie or even a typical coming of age story, Murphy’s debut captures the humanity of suffering while resisting the need for sentiment or mawkish pandering. While it certainly helps that the screenplay is by original playwright Rita Kalnejais, nuanced performances across the board further elevate her astute script.
Actor Toby Wallace avoids bad-boy cliches by shifting effortlessly between barely concealed trauma and exuberant joy. In doing so, his appeal to 16-year-old Milla becomes painfully relatable, and this makes it easier to swallow her parents’ eventual acceptance of him too. It helps also that Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis are so charismatic in their roles. In young-love stories, parents are often relegated to the sidelines, so it’s gratifying to see the pair sink their teeth into such substantial parts.
Still, none of this would work if Milla herself fell flat. Fortunately, Eliza Scanlen succeeds by tapping into a different kind of darkness than the one she channelled on HBO’s Sharp Objects. Quirky yet never annoying, sympathetic but never pitiful, Milla is extremely rounded in a way teen protagonists rarely are on screen. When Milla calls Moses her boyfriend after just one kiss, we believe her childish sincerity, and when she makes some tough decisions later on, we believe those too.
Murphy’s direction also pushes against the boundaries of Milla’s world with the same kind of rebellious teenage spirit, using stylised text, lighting and music to dizzying effect. And just as the intoxicating allure of first love threatens to swallow her up completely, Scanlen’s character stubbornly breaks the fourth wall in a couple of brief but knowing moments that hint at something almost ethereal surrounding her proximity to death.
Unlike its namesake, Babyteeth isn’t just a fleeting experience. Murphy’s debut avoids the usual growing pains of first features to capture the transcendent and yet excruciating kind of first love that stays with you long after your adult teeth have all finally come in.
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Originally published: 7 September 2019