Rarely do you see the overpowering presence of grief played out in advance of death, but Babyteeth quietly conveys an unfolding tragedy with an edgy, uncharacteristic confidence.
The debut feature from director Shannon Murphy, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais (itself adapted from her own stage play), Babyteeth centres on Milla (Eliza Scanlan), an Australian teenager terminally ill with cancer who by chance meets young, ragged drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), who crashes into the middle-class life of Milla and her disaffected, slightly broken parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), aiding an emotional and sexual awakening for Milla as she teeters on the edge of her own existence, and adds to the cauldron of tragedy Milla’s parents are repressing and restricting as they face down the inevitable.
This description makes Babyteeth sound more incendiary and overtly dramatic than it actually is, as Murphy’s film eschews melodrama where possible in favour of slowly decrypting Milla’s traumatic journey to acceptance, contrasted with her parents inability to cope with the devastating loss ahead of them. It is far more of a mournful coming of age story than anything else.
Murphy, previously a director of short films before a breakthrough gig helming two episodes of the recent third season of the BBC’s hit drama Killing Eve, presents a physically warm but difficult to parse modern Australia, without the piece seeming too specific. It could be America. It could be England. The spirit is the same.
She has discussed in interviews the nature of physicality generally in relation to Babyteeth:
As someone who used to love dancing, and love watching choreography, the physicality of those characters is just as important as the words they’re saying. If you took all the words out of Babyteeth, you could still understand almost everything that’s happening. With Milla, Eliza [Scanlen] and I had to find how she moved and danced, so Eliza would dance every day. She’d send me a different daily video from her bedroom.
While the picture offers us two of the finest Antipodean actors working today in Davis and Mendelsohn, Scanlen is a quietly emotive presence in Babyteeth, and a far cry from her more parochial turn in Greta Gerwig’s recent Little Women as one of the March sisters.
Scanlen’s Milla is troubled, less by her terminal diagnosis but more the restrictions it enforces on the realities of growing up. Never in Babyteeth are there scenes when this family truly discuss the fact she is going to die, it is simply a fact of life. You sense those conversations have been had, or never will be. Milla simply wants to live, and the arrival of Moses in her life affords her the chance. Wallace does an excellent job with a character who is outwardly unsympathetic and difficult, perhaps even toxic, but he too bears his own dysfunctional middle-class story as the child of a mother who has rejected his refusal to, as he puts it to Henry, conform. Milla is attracted to his sense of freedom, however self-destructive that might be.
This connects with another undercurrent to Babyteeth, exemplified in the parents: the idea of staid modernity. Whether Anna and Henry are unhappy because of Milla’s cancer or despite it remains unspoken, but neither are truly where they want to be. Anna uses pretend therapy sessions with her psychiatrist husband to stage workday trysts, while addicted to pills, while Henry finds himself drawn to Anna’s pregnant friend Jenny (Amanda Demetriades), who perhaps represents a wholesome innocence missing from his life. Much is left unsaid, and Murphy utilises her stark camera to portray the physical reality of Davis and Mendelsohn’s broken performances. As a pair of chameleonic performers, they do much with Kalnejais’ parsed back script.
The tragic pallor covering Babyteeth is balanced with sparks of mordant, black humour that arise at unexpected moments, but the presiding mood is one of sombre examination. Milla’s journey will only ever end one way but Scanlen injects her with such a controlled lust for normal teenage sexual and emotional experience, especially in her scenes with Wallace, that often the film doesn’t need words. At times, Babyteeth loses a step and meanders, perhaps stretching what is already a thin narrative out a shade too long, but as a calling card from Murphy this is promising.
An edgy, cathartic and muscular exploration of grief before the fact, marked by four strong performances.
Babyteeth is released in U.K. cinemas on August 14th.
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