Creating a coming-of-age film focusing on a character with a terminal illness is always a tricky line to balance. We’ve had The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Everything, Everything and Five Feet Apart in the last few years alone. These films all contain a teenage girl being taught how to ‘live’ on the verge of death. It’s a specific subgenre which is susceptible to an overload of melodrama. It’s incredibly difficult to execute them with a true sense of authenticity without leaning on overt sentimentality. In her feature film debut, Australian director Shannon Murphy understands that this subgenre needs a change of tone and style.
Babyteeth opens with Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a fifteen-year-old cancer patient, having a chance meeting with Moses (Toby Wallace)—a scuzzy 23-year-old sporting a rat-tail and a face tattoo. He’s also a drug addict who has been kicked out of his house by his mother. You’d expect it would be a recipe for disaster, but Milla instantly falls in love with him, and Moses is eventually invited to meet Milla’s parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). As you’d expect with any classic teen movie, they don’t exactly approve. But don’t expect these dynamics to be predictable in the usual teen movie fashion.
What differentiates Babyteeth from the litany of other films in the subgenre is the anarchic and macabre energy throughout. Rita Kalnejais’ screenplay is one which goes back and forth as to the tone it wants to convey. It’s never easy to meld dark comedy and drama, especially in a film where our lead character has a terminal illness. It’s especially difficult to translate that tone off the page. Occasionally the balance between dark comedy and poignant drama doesn’t fully work, but Murphy brings an emotional grounding to the film that elevates the more gut-wrenching moments (of which there many) as well as the scenes that lean more comedic—which often feel deliberately awkward in the best way. Maintaining a balance between wacky and emotional was something Murphy did very well in the Are You from Pinner? episode of Killing Eve’s latest season.
In true coming-of-age film fashion, there’s an immersive and psychedelic party scene with strobing neon lights and spacey atmospherics. What I’ve found with Australian cinema in the past few years is that some films can feel extremely televisual and flat. Babyteeth does not have this problem. One element that remains consistently wonderful throughout is Murphy and cinematographer Andrew Commis’ striking use of colour. With its hues of pinkish beige and turquoise, it’s able to simultaneously feel stylised and very naturalistic. It’s not a film which feels polished and clean in a way a lot of recent Australian films do. I hate to use this word, but it’s a bit gritty—especially in a way that a film in this subgenre could’ve easily shied away from. Murphy isn’t afraid to use handheld to immerse us in these characters and the world.
The character of Moses is an extremely hard one to execute on a script level and on screen. When he was introduced I was really afraid Moses was going to be overly one-note and drag the story and Milla’s character down. However, he’s what keeps this story unpredictable and continually surprising. How we perceive him as an audience is almost how Anna and Henry perceive him as the film goes along—every so often a new layer is revealed. Milla and Moses’ relationship is also one which could be off-putting with a less talented filmmaker. There’s a real, genuine connection you feel between these two. It’s not predatory as I feared it could become in the film’s early stages. It’s got far more heart and depth than the typical relationship between someone who seems clean-cut and a person who’s from the wrong side of the tracks. Toby Wallace is an absolute revelation, providing Moses with a real heart and lacing him with a sense of sympathy over his rough exterior.
Australian screen icons Ben Mendelsohn and the eternally underappreciated Essie Davis are brilliant as Milla’s parents Henry and Anna. Henry is a psychiatrist who, despite his job, retreats into being a closed-off husband and father, while Anna slowly combusts around him. Milla’s new relationship feels like the final straw for two parents who are already afraid of losing everything they love. What I appreciated from a narrative standpoint is that they’re not perfect parents. They’re not antagonists to Milla due to her relationship with Moses. As with so many story elements in this film, they could’ve been very one-note as parents who want to purge their daughter from her self-destructive boyfriend. However, it’s Henry and Anna who are the ones that are really self-destructing. This is the first Australian production that Mendelsohn has starred in since 2010, and it’s a superb return. There’s a real emotional intelligence to his performance, and Mendelsohn beautifully conveys the deep pain which Henry hides internally. Davis provides a similarly panicked energy to what she did in The Babadook, albeit it’s far more heartbreaking than it is terrifying in this compared to Jennifer Kent’s horror masterpiece.
It’s only fitting to heap most of my plaudits on the amazingly fierce Eliza Scanlen, who delivers spectacularly in yet another hard-hitting role. Despite it still being very early in her career, Scanlen has starred alongside Amy Adams in the superb HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, Saoirse Ronan and co. in Little Women and now she gets to act alongside two Australian cinematic icons in Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis. Once again she’s able to not only hold her own, but absolutely steal the show. She’s one of Australia’s brightest talents.
It’s best to go into Babyteeth knowing as little as possible. It’s a story which you’d expect to go to places typical of your standard coming-of-age film, but Murphy refreshingly sidesteps the tropes and maudlin sentimentality of this subgenre. It’s a devastating story which still manages to deliver macabre humour amongst its emotional baggage. Murphy edges towards a conclusion which is as shocking and surprising as it is brutally emotional. It comes ever so close into staying in mawkishness but it’s the authenticity of the relationships, particularly between Milla and her parents, which makes this story ring true. I love to see Australian cinema which isn’t afraid to be really grounded, dirty and authentic while still feeling truly Australian. Babyteeth is exactly that.
Babyteeth is in Australian cinemas now.