Directed by Shannon Murphy.
Starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn and Emily Barclay.
A teenager seriously ill with cancer discovers first love with a troubled drug addict she meets at a train station.
There’s always something exciting about watching a promising debut feature, which also introduces the world to an actor who is destined for monster stardom. Those things are certainly true of Babyteeth, which marries the compelling new voice of Aussie director Shannon Murphy with leading lady Eliza Scanlen, fresh from breakout work in HBO’s Sharp Objects and the most thankless role in the ensemble of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women last year. This is an exciting debut feature, albeit one that feels flawed and uneven.
Scanlen plays Milla, whom we meet on a train platform, seemingly contemplating taking the fateful step on to the tracks. It’s then that she bumps, quite literally, into Moses (Toby Wallace) – a drug addict with lofty ideas about existing outside of society, albeit ideas that have seen him kicked out of his mother’s house. Milla immediately falls for Moses and brings him to meet her parents – psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and former music prodigy Anna (Essie Davis). It transpires that Milla has cancer and, as her bond with Moses grows, her condition worsens.
Babyteeth, smartly, takes a more complex approach than the rather odd “teen disease weepie” genre tends to follow. This is a movie about how everyone is medicating themselves in one way or another, either literally or figuratively, to get through their struggles. Milla is the one who’s at the centre of a bona fide medical emergency, but Murphy broadens the focus to deal with the problems of those around her too, even as they seem insignificant in the shade of the enormity of her predicament.
Scanlen’s performance is strange, but terrifically observed. Her every move and gesture connotes someone trying to break free of being a “person with cancer”, while it’s clear she’s never able to forget what she’s going through. She’s outwardly fun-loving and desperate to throw herself into the fiery first love she’s feeling – communicated to the audience by occasional, subtle breaks of the fourth wall – but her vulnerability is clear. Scanlen carries every complex emotion with charm and warmth, ably supported by Wallace’s pleasantly unshowy take on a character who, with his rat-tail hairdo and awful tattoos, could easily have been a caricature.
The same nuance is handed to Davis and Mendelsohn – two of Australia’s best acting exports – but the lack of screen time leaves their storylines looking sketched rather than fully realised. Penned by Rita Kalnejais, adapting her own stage play, the story is organised into chapters – sometimes descriptively titled and sometimes merely called things like “fuck this” – that vary in length to the point that the structure is effectively that of crazy paving rather than an elegant pathway. There’s merit in a disorganised journey into a disorganised world, of course, but it leaves the movie wandering listlessly around its story at times, rather than digging into its heart.
But there’s more than enough at play here to chew on. The eclectic soundtrack covers classical and pop to compelling effect, while Murphy and cinematographer Andrew Commis find beauty and tragedy within the sun-dappled Australian suburbs and the reflective shimmer of swimming pools. Babyteeth culminates in a stunning, heartfelt scene on an idyllic beach that communicates more with the looks in the actor’s eyes than the rest of the movie is able to convey, despite its near two-hour running time and abundance of stylistic flair.
Murphy’s promising, intelligent directorial debut is a film that is capable of landing savage emotional blows, but also has a frustrating habit of obfuscating its ideas within the dancing haze of its myriad chapters and multiple subplots. Babyteeth does, however, serve as a terrific calling card for Scanlen, who delivers a performance of complexity and warmth, despite the possibly generic trappings of the story. If there’s any justice, there are even bigger and better things in her immediate future.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.