Film Review: ‘Babyteeth’ Is Transcendent & Profound
Babyteeth heralds the arrival of a potent, new voice in world cinema. Shannon Murphy’s big-screen directorial debut is nuanced and deceptively radical. She takes a familiar trope — a dying teen falling in love — and then molds it into something quite different by removing all of the sap. What remains is a moving snapshot of an already-dysfunctional family crumbling under the weight of pain. Only, Babyteeth isn’t misery porn. Murphy finds beauty in the broken, dotting the film with moments of unexpected humor and healing.
Pieced together in dream-like vignettes, the film opens with Milla (Eliza Scanlen) waiting for a train in an inner-city suburb of Sydney, Australia. She is pulled out her adolescent stupor when a clearly-wasted Moses (Toby Wallace) charges past her in a mock suicide attempt. The 16-year-old is inexplicably smitten and gladly hands over money when she discovers that he is homeless. That is, however, on the condition that he gives her a haircut. Which he proceeds to do with stolen dog clippers. As you might have already guessed, Babyteeth is not your average coming of age story.
Fueled by latent rebellion and wakening hormones, Milla brings Moses home to meet her parents. They are understandably appalled when they discover that their guest is 23, addicted to drugs and dating another girl. Henry (Ben Mendlesohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) do their best to chase him off, but it’s too late. Milla has found a kindred spirit. Cancer has given her a master class in trauma, while Moses he wears his pain like a bad face tattoo. When the teenager relapses, she finds purpose in caring for Moses and settles for, at first, unrequited love.
After railing against the friendship, Milla’s parents eventually change their minds. Henry, a clinical psychiatrist, offers to provide Moses with prescription drugs if he moves in with the family and shows interest in their daughter. It’s an act of desperation from a man that is fraying at the seams. He injects morphine to numb the pain of possibly losing a child and flirts with a heavily pregnant neighbor. Anna has unraveled even further. Anti-depressants and denial are her crux, while a lingering connection to an old flame is her anchor.
“This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” Anna quips at one point — and she’s entirely correct. But that doesn’t stop it being the right thing to do. Moses offers Milla the chance to feel something akin to normalcy. The situation threatens to implode more than once, but the seed of family has been sown. Conveying this scenario and expressing these ideas without being mawkish is an extraordinary feat that Murphy achieves by sharing key moments and trusting the viewer to do the rest.
It’s the look of simultaneous grief and joy that falls over Anna’s face when she sees her daughter dancing to an old record and the casual cruelness of a classmate asking to try on Milla’s wig. Murphy captures the highs and lows of everyday life with rare candor. She knows that the magic is in the minutiae. There are casual conversations about Bichon puppies and dahlias, commentary on Moses’ terrible spaghetti and a lesson in applying hair gel from the pregnant neighbor. This is a director that knows that the most profound memories can come from meaningless moments.
Murphy is the latest, immensely talented female director to emerge from Australia, and there is a loose thread that runs through their work. The surreal flourishes and bruising honesty of Babyteeth reminded me of Jane Campion’s Sweetie, while her ability to pierce the veil of suburban life evoked memories of Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous. The common denominator is unblinking empathy and a determination to portray brave, vulnerable, flawed women on the big screen. She is a talent to behold.
Babyteeth wouldn’t cut as deep without its brilliant cast. As Milla, Eliza Scanlen (Little Women, HBO’s Sharp Objects etc.) reminds us that she is one of the most gifted young actresses working today, while Toby Wallace matches her scene for scene. He delivers a star-making performance that deservedly won him the Best Young Actor Award at Venice. Perhaps more than any other character, Moses best personifies the frailty and strength of the human condition. They both deserve to be in the awards mix this year.
The same goes for the film’s supporting players. Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis deliver some of their best work in Babyteeth, adding nuance and heft to a story that could have so easily fallen into cliché. They are broken, at times horrible (mostly to each other), but there is love between them and it seeps through the dysfunction. Davis, in particular, deserves credit for elevating two of the year’s best films — this and True History Of The Kelly Gang. You get the feeling that her ascent has only just begun.
Even though you know what’s coming, the final vignettes of Babyteeth are devastating and transformative in equal measure. Ultimately, this isn’t a film about death. It’s about the collision of love and grief that leads to healing.