“Can I try it on?” It’s a question that you might ask someone who’s just got new glasses, not a new wig, and yet it’s a question that is asked of terminally-ill Milla (Eliza Scanlen) in the assured debut from Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth, adapted from a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais. After refusing the girls request, Milla reluctantly hands it over, hiding from the mirrors as well as the girl's phone which immediately comes out for a plethora of selfies. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable moment, but darkly comic at the same time as you watch this girl pout and pose with zero self-awareness. This quiet scene embodies Murphy’s approach to the film, never allowing her characters to be patronised or pandered to, instead letting them breathe in order to tell their story of death, life and love.
After the strangest meet-cute involving suicidal ideation, a $50 note and a nose bleed, Milla and small-town drug dealer, Moses (Toby Wallace), fall into a quick and comfortable friendship. Babyteeth follows the blossoming of their relationship, and yet that is not exactly what the film is about. This is a domestic story, a private tale about a family trying, failing and trying again to live in the face of death. Broken into short chapters (arguably the clumsiest part of the film), Babyteeth plays like a series of vignettes strung together by the profound impact they have on Milla and her family.
Scanlen is outstanding here, proving what we already knew in that given a lead she will do nothing but astound. Working from Kalnejais’ screenplay, she immediately puts aside the expectations of the terminally-ill teen coming-of-age story. She radiates energy and life, a force made visible as she loses herself in music, whether she is dancing to the swells of an English folk song or playing a sombre melody on the violin accompanied by her mother. Her quirky, often wild, physicality is a reminder that to feel alive is sometimes to feel angry and that and the end of the day she is just a girl, a young girl filled with rage over her inability to stop what is happening to her. It is a rage that fuels her every action.
Through every childish expression of frustration and rebellion, Scanlen informs the viewer that Milla is a kid wanting to live life before she no longer can. With a knowing wink, she breaks the fourth wall, as if to invite the audience as a co-conspirator to her rebellions, as, after stealing a kiss from Moses, she turns to you and grins. Although her infatuation with Moses is uncomfortable to watch, you understand that she has not been afforded the time to wait for life to come to her. Instead, she has to take hold of it herself, and she does so with the sense of enraged urgency that draws her and Moses even closer together.
As much as is it a film about the relationship between Milla and Moses, it is also about her parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). They carry an emotional resonance, underlining the backdrop of grieving someone still alive. Each believing the other to be responding ‘incorrectly’ — one feeling too much emotion, the other not enough — they dance around each other, and their daughter. They don’t have the answers for Milla, they don’t know how they could put her mind at ease and it is this not knowing that breathes fresh air into these well-worn characters. Meanwhile, the knowledge of tragedy on their horizon doesn’t detract from their drama, instead imbuing the moments they share together in their mismatched family with warmth and dearness. Much of the film sees these four forced together by the fierce stubbornness of Milla, and it is a pleasure to be invited to the table.
Murphy’s debut is a resounding success, showing patience and understanding for its characters. Babyteeth is a film that exudes vulnerability; in its quiet moments, this tenderness is echoed by spontaneity, much like the hand-held visuals from cinematographer Andrew Commis that are as gentle as they are intimate. While the rest of the palette remains neutral and partially subdued, specific colours are embraced, as with Milla’s bright teal wig. It's a reminder of the joy of life, the small things and times that pop in a beige and unfair world. Which is perhaps why, when the credits roll, we don't fade to black but pink. A beautiful baby pink.
Babyteeth is released in the UK on August 14.
Read our interview with director Shannon Murphy here.