Tom Van Kalken | 17/07/2020
With a stellar Australian cast, Rita Kalnejias brings her coming of age stageplay to the silver screen in this compelling and emotional family drama.
When Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage girl from a well-to-do family, falls in love with a small-time drug dealer 6 years her senior, her parents do everything in their power to quash their blossoming romance.
In her directorial debut, director Shannon Murphy offers up a raw and touching family drama that hits all the right notes for an independent Australian drama as well as a few unsettling ones. Eliza Scanlen, best known for her performances in Little Women (2019) and the HBO drama Sharp Object (2018) plays Milla, the teenage daughter of a well-off psychiatrist, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), and a classical pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis). Milla’s privilege only extends so far though, as we learn she has been diagnosed with cancer.
The film opens with a 15-year-old Milla waiting, in full private school regalia, at a suburban Sydney train station. This is where she has her chance encounter with Moses (Toby Wallace), a rat-tailed, face-tattooed small-time drug dealer. An instant chemistry is struck between the two of them and Moses is invited back to the Finlay family home; much to her parent’s dismay.
Moses lies, cheats, and steals from the Finlay family throughout the film and causes emotional and physical distress to Milla. On top of that, the age difference between the two adds to the uneasiness that Milla’s parents (and surely also the audience) feel for the budding romance. Fundamentally, however, Moses cares deeply for Milla, and despite the heartbreak and pain that he causes, he also provides for her a merciful happiness that doesn’t exist elsewhere in her life.
As well as a quirky and often unsettling coming of age story, ‘Babyteeth’ also plays the role of a serious and poignant family drama. Anna and Henry’s marriage is fraying at the edges, an issue which is only exacerbated by Milla’s illness and new love interest. Mendelssohn does a fantastic job in the understated role of Henry who, even as a psychiatrist can’t help but backslide into the stereotypical role of the emotionally closed-off husband. Henry struggles through-out the film to deal with his own emotions and, unable to see past himself, stands on the sidelines as his wife flails. Davis, as Anna, carries a bulk of this film’s emotional baggage; struggling with her past, trying to reconcile with her present, we follow Anna as she attempts to deal with a post-anti-depressant life.
The film’s true talent lies in how Murphy is able to translate the finer points of intimacy to the screen. Be it the hormonal surge, irrationality and nonsensical nature of a first love or the antagonism shared between a well-meaning mother and her prepubescent daughter. Another of the film’s masterstrokes comes from the film’s relationship to drugs. Each major character in this film uses some form of pharmaceutical cushion to help ease them through this pivotal moment in their lives. Although Moses’ may be the prototypical picture of a drug addict, this film aims to prove that substance abuse is a matter of degrees, comes in all shapes and sizes, and is found in all walks of life.
Murphy also brings a unique style to the film, the handheld motion of the camera is knowingly pretty and the use of lighting, particularly in scenes like the party at the art gallery, create some beautiful images that stay in mind long after the credits have rolled.
There are a handful of movies that walk a similar path as Babyteeth; The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Me Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) come to mind as some of the bigger hits of the past 10 years in the teens-with-cancer sub-genre. But what those movies lack is a sentimentality that Babyteeth has in excess. The film avoids much specificity about Milla’s illness and instead focuses on the much more real, visceral, and human elements of her story; on her refusal to wallow and her essence as a person.
Raw, touching and beautiful, Babyteeth is everything independent Australian cinema should be.