The first thing to be said about “Babyteeth” is that newcomer Shannon Murphy has crafted a very impressive feature film debut, after a decade of directing mostly TV shows and short films. The second observation to be made is that Murphy is another exciting female voice that joins the ranks of many other fresh filmmakers that hold so much great potential in carrying the torch for future filmmaking.
Acting-wise, the film is very quirky and equally wrenching, boasting strong performances from Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, and Essie Davis. The story of “Babyteeth” appears to be all too familiar: A terminally-ill teenager is diagnosed with cancer and falls in love with an offbeat, outsider boy who reassures and guides her into experiencing new and exciting things as her days are numbered, while her disconnected parents disapprove of their relationship. But Murphy’s film, adapted from the successful theater play by Rita Kalnejais, is done with much more grace and vigor than something like “The Fault in Our Stars” or “A Walk to Remember.”
It needs to be said that “Babyteeth” is not a major film, perhaps because its central characters come a little too self-absorbed and neurotic, but they are always appealing. Thematically, the film merges melodrama with comedy, a type of formula that many directors do explore. From Noah Baumbach to Alexander Payne, most of the time these films involve a dissection of complex relationships between estranged and disconnected family members. The film has a rife of honest observations, humor, and pathos, all deriving directly from the film’s narrative, the film is bold and ambiguous, allowing the viewers to connect the characters motivations and arcs into a more thoughtful and non-manipulative way.
The films setting is in Sydney, Australia that resembles American suburbs. the film opens with a dead tooth being placed into a glass container. We quickly learn that it belongs to fifteen-year-old girl named Milla Finlay (Scanlen). As noted above, she is long-inn with her cancer diagnosis as she struggles to stay afloat. Her middle-class lifestyle also appears to be in shames. One day a brief encounter with a young transient drifter named Moses (Toby Wallace), almost bumps her into an ongoing train as she is on her way to school. Moss has a face tattoo, a mullet, and looks like a character out of a Harmony Korine film. Once Milla’s nose starts bleeding from his bump, Moses assists her with his shirt that he was wearing. He eventually convinces her to give him money, and Milla is instantly swept away by him.
Aesthetically “Babyteeth” is very impressive, with a woozy atmosphere and elliptical tones that expertly capture Milla’s own psyche. Milla has lost her hair from her chemo treatments, and wears wigs of various colors and lengths that bring out her radiant eyes. She doesn’t live your typical teenage lifestyle. Her encounter with Moses allows Millia a chance of self-discovery that will allow her to love and gain experiences before her life can be potentially lost. There is a standout moment in the film where Milla invites Moses over to the house, only to be dismissed by her depressed mother, Anna (Davis) and her unhappy father Henry (Mendelsohn) who is a psychiatrist who happens to leave medication around the house.
We never fully understand on a literal sense on how Milla would be attracted to such a loser. Possibly out of loneliness, Moses continues to undermine all opportunities in fostering a relationship with Milla. The relationship begins playful and even attentive, which eventually goes off the rails as we see two people attempting to endure love with two health conditions–Millia with cancer and Moses with his drug addiction. Their relationship becomes platonic and essential, a notable observation in the film is just how Moses doesn’t acknowledge Milla’s condition, he just accepts it without any hesitation. Contrary to how Milla’s classmate treats her after shes passively-aggressively humiliates her in a bathroom by taking off her wig and trying it on and taking a selfie with it is one of the films most heart breaking potent moments. As Millia watches on with her bald head just unravels how these small cruelties exist beneath the surface.
The triumph of “Babyteeth” is that it doesn’t offer simple solutions or motivations in unraveling the reasons Moses and Milla are drawn to one other, what is deeply compelling is how Milla begins to grow stronger as a character who takes a stand against the individuals who downplay and condescend her condition. While Moses isn’t your idea of a normal boyfriend, he at least stands as a reflection of Milla’s internal longings and missed yearnings. There is no accident that Milla is drawn to more of a rebellion spirit who stays out all night with him, skips school, and has many other late-night adventures together. Murphy’s artistry with striking compositions and hallucinatory imagery elevates this from being a mundane adolescent film.
While not everything succeeds in “Babyteeth”, the subplots involving Milla’s parents serve purpose on their own longings they are experiencing from the hardships they endured from Mila’s illness–so much running time is given to secondary characters as Henry’s attraction to his promiscuous pregnant neighbor to a secret attraction Milla’s mother has towards her violin teacher (Eugene Gilfedder.) Each of these exchanges are restraint and well-acted, yet almost feel unnecessary to the spline of the story that takes away from the story. The film reaches greater depths each time it explores Millia living her life before her it ends. The film is a reminder of the 2003 Isabel Coixet drama “My Life Without Me” that also revolved around a woman who is diagnosed with cancer and makes a list of things to do before she dies.
Through a series of subtly and delicacy chapters, “Babyteeth” wins you over despite its lofty material that always engages as it avoids sentimental and mawkish detours: imminent death movies often can get sappy or overly melodramatic, yet this is rendered with so much humanity, humor and warmth. This film is a melting meditation that truly defines the human experience and what it means to be alive.