“A brilliant tale of unapologetic rawness”
If you have found yourself unconvinced by the illness tropes in teenage-love-story films of the twenty-first century, whether it was a nose up to The Fault in Our Stars (2014) or an eye roll to Five Feet Apart (2019), you will likely meet your match when it comes to Babyteeth. This year’s rendition of the contemporary story of first-love in the midst of imminent death has gorgeously shattered the pre-conceived category of films it can easily be classed in, and deserves a pedestal of its own. Shannon Murphy, articulate, clever, and one of the recent directors of Killing Eve, makes her feature film debut with one of the smartest films of the year, and establishes herself in record time as one of the prime directors to look out for. She will have your heart racing, skin crawling, mouth agape, and eyes irrevocably glued to the screen with the Australian made film Babyteeth.
Milla, played by the remarkably gifted Eliza Scanlen, is a sixteen-year-old girl losing an uphill battle with cancer when she meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a twenty-three-year-old drug dealer and addict, on a train platform after school. Clad in her prep-school platform, violin case hanging off of her shoulder, Milla waits quietly for the next train after her friends shout for her to join them.
Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Except in this story, there is no sweeping act of romance, because Babyteeth has a penchant for subverting both filmic and societal stereotypes. Once Moses shows up to the scene, it’s game over. Milla’s nose starts to bleed and Moses ungraciously pulls her to the ground and lays her over his legs so that he can sort out her gushing problem with his filthy and sweat-coated shirt that he pulls off his back. If anything, this moment should serve as the tone-setter for the rest of the film, because there are no subtleties over its course.
From the first night that Milla brings Moses to her gorgeous home, inhabited by her and her parents, there is unsteady energy, making it seem like there is constant movement of the tectonic plates on which their house stands. Milla’s father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist stationed in the office of their house, and Milla’s mother, Anna (Essie Davis), is an anxious wreck, positioned as Milla’s primary caretaker when it comes to her cancer. Between Henry’s will to keep his family afloat by prescribing his wife with potent anxiety medication, and Anna’s full-time role of keeping her daughter alive, the system that has once semi-functioned in their family is thrown off its rocker by Moses’s unpredictable, shady, rambunctious and unreliable personality that has the people of his life orbiting around him.
Babyteeth is the story of a consortium of strong personalities in a severe and painful situation. In many ways, it is told as a tender and beautiful anthology of poetry, broken down into different sonnets that mark the stages of Milla’s illness and how this consortium shifts and reorganizes; there is a live ebb and flow. It is an authentic telling of how desperate people become when they know they are losing the ones they care most for, and how this realisation brings them to the ends of the earth in order to dull the pain of loss. It is the moments of humanity found in the loss that lend themselves to how remarkably genuine the film truly is. Shannon Murphy’s simultaneous depiction of love and illness, without the romanticising of the latter, is as effective as it is heart-breaking.
Humor, however, is not lost on the players. Babyteeth is a cinematic comedy of errors, in which the most genuine stories and choices are told by a cast of incredibly talented individuals, and through the lens of an unequivocally talented director. The subtle but darkly comedic aspect of the film builds extensively more depth than one could have otherwise imagined. One instance of this towards the very beginning of the film depicts Moses breaking in to Milla’s house to steal her cancer medication — both painkillers and chemo retainers alike – in order to eventually sell or take himself. The tension of Milla’s mother catching him mid-action, yet being reluctant to act in order to contain the situation, is emblematic of this film’s sordid yet effective humor in which your mouth is agape until you erupt into laughter; in a situation with stakes so high, the tension is dissipated, with Moses blowing the situation off of as a joke, keeping the medication, and Anna allowing him to stay the night as opposed to calling the police, so that Milla does not have to learn a truth that will make her suffer even more.
The beating heart of this story arises from these nearly farcical undertakings of Moses, the musical interweavings of the story, and the breaking of the fourth wall, which, at first appearance, is so visually striking and unexpected that it causes every hair to stick up on your arm. Milla’s occasional nods to the audience act as an invitation to experience the thrills of being in love for the first time, and the bravery of it — viewers have a first class ticket to experience the daringness of pursuing your desires, and ultimately the exasperation that follows when she is brought back to reality. As viewers, we have a stake in Milla’s story because she is allowing it to be ours as well, and it is perhaps the novel personal fusion of the story that sets it apart from not just films about illness and love, but ultimately every other film this year.
Babyteeth is the brilliant tale of unapologetic rawness, love without fear, illness without the romanticizing of dying, a family on its knees, and acceptance that in both love and life, things will crumble.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Screenwriter: Rita Kalnejais
Producer: Alex White
Actors: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn