Director: Shannon Murphy
Screenwriter: Rita Kelnejais
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Eugene Gilfedder, Emily Barclay
Set in the enveloping warmth of Sydney’s golden sunshine, Babyteeth, Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, gloriously radiates the heart-fluttering ecstasy of falling in love for the first time. We start with a freshly extracted baby tooth, sinking slowly into a glass of perspiring water; it’s a symbol of growing up, of the small sharp pains of adolescence and, most importantly, of the inevitability of loss. Adapted from a play of the same name written by Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth is a fragile, heart-breaking, oddly comical tale about finding the wrong kind of right.
Sixteen-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is almost knocked into an oncoming train in an offbeat meet-cute with Moses (Toby Wallace), whose infectious grin, dangerously short shorts and daring personality has her instantly intoxicated. One moment she is waiting for a train, the next she is swaddled in Moses’ arms, his dirty shirt pressed against her bleeding nose. When he puts her up for money, Moses reveals himself to be trouble, yet unphased, Milla takes him home to Mum and Dad like a lost puppy. Her parents are horrified by Moses’ red-rimmed eyes, significant age difference and the fact that he has, just moments earlier, sheared their daughter’s hair off with a pair of poodle clippers. Yet, nothing they say or do can distract Milla from the exhilaration she finds when she and Moses are together. Milla, we later find out, happens to be battling terminal cancer, and Moses happens to be a homeless drug addict, but their pressing personal issues are simply background echoes drowned out by the pair’s foolishly powerful connection. Instead of reeling in shock when Milla reveals her freshly bald head, Moses surveys her new look happily, saying “It looks cool. It’s like way better than the one I gave you”.
For Milla, who is desperate to experience life outside of her comfort zone, Moses and his fearless approach to living is a perfect date. Wearing matching lilac shirts, the pair share a romantic night on the town; the dreamy outing working as the focal point of the film, during which Moses acts as Milla’s guide, providing her with a fleeting glimpse at an average teenage life. Milla’s parents, Henry and Anna (played by the engaging pairing of Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis), act as dysfunctional onlookers, doing their best to entertain their personal fantasies while helplessly trying to preserve the life they are currently living. It seems they have prepared for every tragic outcome, except that of the appearance of an unsuitable love interest. Against their better judgement, they decide to let go of sensible parenting tactics, reluctantly letting their daughter play out what may be her only shot of experiencing love.
On paper, the film sounds like another mawkish, The Fault in Our Stars, type romance, but on film, Murphy manages to side-step every overworked genre cliché, painting an unusually funny, entirely relatable story, fleshed out with colourfully textured cinematography and magnetic character work; only enhanced by the cast’s naturalistic performances. In chaptered scenes, we stay intrusively close to each character, with Andrew Commin’s handheld footage capturing the relentless sharing of touches, strokes, caresses and tickles which litter every moment. Murphy breathes life and history into each character, particularly with Milla’s parents, who sketch out a unique relationship, taking space to navigate their difficult relationship issues while simultaneously filling their home with love. Their relationship often echoes the Pearlmans of Luca Guadingnino’s Call Me by Your Name, as they allow Milla the same space and respect Elio received to explore his developing sexual urges.
Eliza Scanlen is dizzying as Milla. In an oversized pink unicorn t-shirt and colourful wigs she delivers childlike innocence, most enamouring when she giddily asks Moses silly questions such as “But do you like like me?” Her goofiness is intermittently interrupted with displays of premature maturity, displayed best in a fight with Moses as she screams “Stop wasting my time” at his retreating figure: the remark all the more biting because it acknowledges the fragility of her illness. While Moses is a hard sell, Wallace matches Scanlen’s engaging energy with soulful cheekiness, his comic-timing giving Moses the harmless qualities of a big-kid rather than an intimidating twenty-three-year-old drug addicted man.
Drug use plays a substantial role in the film, with each character experiencing a private relationship with self-medication. For Anna and Henry who face losing their only daughter, for Moses who has become a stranger to his own family, and for Milla who depends on medication to ease the pain of her illness, narcotics provide a simple escape, dulling the horrors of reality. While their personal relationships with drugs often prove polarising, it is through their shared experiences that they come to realise how important it is to embrace every moment. Gradually, as the reality of Milla’s illness comes into focus, we see just how important it is to dance and enjoy the impish euphoria of young love. Milla takes every opportunity to express her emotions through music, frequently bursting into dance alongside the film’s infectious soundtrack, or by playing beautifully sombre music on her violin. Milla’s affinity with music encapsulates Murphy’s refreshing stance on the ‘dying girlfriend’ genre, declaring that the magic of life is in the simplicity of every day, be it a flirtatious dance in a karaoke dive bar or a family gathering around a piano at a simple birthday party.
As far as boyfriends go, Moses, with his ratty hair, face tattoos and mildly threatening tendency to steal cancer medication, isn’t the best candidate for romance. However, as a companion to hold your hand as you come face to face with your own mortality… well, you could do worse.