If Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars had several drug addictions, plus an overwhelming need for family therapy, it’d read like distant kin to Babyteeth, Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy’s feature debut. Babyteeth files under the “sick teenager” romantic dramedy sub-genre, being the story of Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen), a high school student struggling through youth with cancer while living with her overmedicated basket case mom, Anna (Essie Davis), and her emotionally remote psychiatrist dad, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). Add into that dynamic the arrival of Moses (Toby Wallace), who parts the Finlay’s woes with all the grace of a caroming meteor.
The film’s elastic plot is shaped by Moses’s first encounter with Milla, which unfolds in the opening scene as he runs headlong toward a train for kicks and perhaps for the attention of all young ladies watching. Milla’s friends depart. She stays, intrigued by, in awe of and at least a tad bewildered at Moses’s reckless streak combined with his immediate show of compassion thereafter: Her nose bleeds, and where most would offer her a tissue, Moses quite literally gives her the shirt off his back. She, in gratitude, takes him to her home for a marvelously uncomfortable dinner with her parents, who for obvious reasons object to a 23-year-old flirting with their 16-year-old daughter, especially given Moses’s determined lack of life direction and his own family status: He’s been “evicted” from (read: kicked out of) his house by his mother, who clearly can’t abide his volatility and bad decision-making.
Babyteeth orbits the danger baked into Milla’s infatuation with Moses, which of course blooms into genuine fancy between them. He’s chaos incarnate with a rat tail and a face tattoo, but he clearly digs her, so she digs him back. The feelings that each has for the other are so baldly recognizable that Anna and Henry reluctantly allow the courtship to progress. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” Anna opines, one of the many acerbic punchlines given to her by Rita Kalnejais’ screenplay, each delivered with wide-eyed, deadpanned resignation. Anna exists in a high-functioning haze, aware enough to see and feel the grim reality of Milla’s circumstances, and sharp enough to make sport of them.
Henry, meanwhile, escapes said circumstances by bonding with the new neighbor across the street, Toby (Emily Barclay), heavy with child but fundamentally light of heart. Like Moses’s romance with Milla, his interactions with Toby trip over boundaries of propriety: He’s married for one, and a father for another, and he’s a medical professional. If anyone should know better, it’s him. Most of all, as Henry and Anna develop personal coping mechanisms for confronting the inevitable, they overlook Milla. They spend time with her, sure, but really they’re spending time with her illness, not Milla. Murphy’s storytelling notes the gap between these two axes, allowing Milla an interior life that she and she alone appreciates, while everyone else, even Moses, sees only the exterior.
The dueling complications and contradictions of Babyteeth’s narrative make up its greatest treasures, captured with the marriage of naturalism to dreamlike aesthetics.
One easy way to interpret the movie’s airy atmosphere is as a mirror of the characters’ stupefaction, whether pharmaceutical or spiritual. By the end, as Scanlen’s performance gains exponential clarity and power, and as Milla’s ultimate fate crystalizes, that breezy quality connotes gentle acceptance. It’s a reflection of how people gradually learn to let go. Comparisons between Murphy and her fellows in the Southern Hemisphere—Jane Campion, P.J. Hogan, Shirley Barrett—make sense, but her work best resembles that of Andrea Arnold, whose 2009 masterwork Fish Tank reads as possible influence on Babyteeth in style more so than in content. In both, the camera floats, and in both, truth and surreality have a tangled, fraught relationship.
But in Babyteeth, mundanity is choreographed for maximum weirdness, as in one scene where Anna skims the pool in a semi-zombified state, chores clanging with a pill coma. (Class issues vary, too. This is not a film about people living at society’s fringe, just people living on the fringe.) Davis, long proven as a remarkable actress, is a heartbreaking hoot here, mining the tragedy of sacrifice out of a mother role with such force that the stigma on such roles evaporates. She pairs well next to Scanlen, who has spent her career playing girls suffering terminal maladies, from Little Women to Sharp Objects. Babyteeth carries her further on that trajectory at face value, but Murphy gives her the most range she’s enjoyed in a role to date, and Scanlen, acting alongside Babyteeth’s soft edges, creates a vivid flesh-and-blood character that’ll stamp an indelible mark on her already accomplished filmography.
Likewise, we’ve yet to see the best of what Murphy can do. She fiddles with gravity, alternating weight with buoyancy, treating young love as a temporary cure for Milla’s illness and dysfunction as a cure for hopelessness. In 2020’s pandemic-choked release slate, this movie is a painful, beautiful and especially true gem.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Writer: Rita Kalnejais
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn, Emily Barclay
Release Date: June 19, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.