There is no logical explanation for how an Australian indie film, the first feature from director Shannon Murphy, can contain so many elements: a terminally ill teenager, first love, addiction, music lessons, questionable parenting, comedy, a small-time drug dealer, a defensive-smoking pregnant neighbor, a clueless classmate, a school formal, multiple wigs, a music teacher, a smorgasbord of prescription and illegal drugs, a doctor and dog both named Henry, a bad haircut, and a broken 4th wall…all kicked off by a bloody nose during the ‘meet cute’ at the train stop.
The best explanation for how Babyteeth’s crazy jigsaw fits together is the extraordinary work from director Murphy, the tremendous performances from the talented cast, and the exceptional script (her first screenplay) from Rita Kalnejais, which she adapted from her own play. That cast is made up of screen veterans Ben Mendelsohn (always great) and Essie Davis (the mother in The Babadook, 2014), as well as rising star Eliza Scanlen (so memorable in “Sharp Objects”), and relative unknown (but probably not for long) Toby Wallace. Support work is provided by Emily Barclay, as the neighbor mentioned above, and Eugene Gilfedder as the music teacher.
16-year old Milla (Ms. Scanlen) has terminal cancer. Her resigned demeanor turns to excitement when she meets Moses (Mr. Wallace), a gangly hyperactive ball of energy who looks her in the eye through his own blood-shot peepers. She falls quickly and hard. When Milla invites Moses to dinner, her parents Henry (Mr. Mendelsohn) and Anna (Ms. Davis) are as shocked and confounded as any parent would be – and least of all at her haircut. They forbid Milla to see Moses, and we all know how well that approach works for parents.
Henry is a psychiatrist who walks to work, which sometimes leads to an exchange with his new neighbor Toby – the one who has a dog named Henry, and whose defense of her smoking while pregnant stuns us and Henry (the man, not the doctor). Milla’s mother Anna was a musician, and now suffers from bouts of depression. She’s heavily medicated thanks to her husband who can legally prescribe drugs for her. Moses has been cast out by his own mother in an effort to protect her younger son, and Milla views Moses as a way to live life before dying.
Director Murphy uses segment/chapter titles to distinguish the bouts of dysfunction, and to allow time to skip ahead. Initially, we find ourselves asking the same question Henry and Anna ask, why would Milla go ‘slumming’ for a guy like Moses? We all slowly come around to accept what’s happening. It’s all about feeling as much as possible and experiencing what she can before it’s all over. Time remaining is her motivation.
There are some terrific moments throughout – some easier to watch than others. Milla’s clueless classmate’s selfie is excruciating for us and Milla, and when Anna tells Henry, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” every parent can relate. The actors are in fine form here, each making their character relatable without being showy – even Milla’s breaking the 4th wall is understated. The film teeters between pain and underlying humor, and balances on the edge of melodrama without tipping. The closest film I can recall in tone and style is Mike Mills’ underrated Thumbsucker (2005). With characters that come across as sincere and organic, director Murphy offers up a heartbreaking celebration of living while you are able. Chaos is inevitable, so we might as well accept it.
Babyteeth is available on Amazon Prime.