A beautifully written and performed Aussie heartbreaker

Despite cinemas being closed audiences keeping a close eye on VOD releases are still being blessed with some outstanding releases in 2020. Andrew Patterson recently announced himself as a director to watch with the extremely impressive The Vast of Night, Natalie Erika James is set to wow with her horror debut Relic next month, while Australian director Shannon Murphy is another that can be added to the newbie list with Babyteeth, a beautifully human drama that will fill your mouth with laughter and swamp your eyes with tears.

Thanks to a perfectly-pitched script by playwright Rita Kalnejais (adapting her own play) and wonderful casting and performances that bring it to life, Babyteeth offers a refreshing spin on the story of a young teenage cancer patient. Do not go in expecting the usual mawkishness and emotional manipulation these types of films usually serve up, but instead delight in watching a set of characters honestly reveal their vulnerabilities to remind us that making our way through life rarely involves logic.

Eliza Scanlen is a 16-year-old schoolgirl called Milla dealing with cancer and the uncertainty that she might not even make it to 17. Yet it’s only when she takes off her wig that we realise she has the illness, as things are so far down the line barely any direct references are made about it anymore. Everyone ‘accepts’ she has cancer and it’s become a sad fact of everyday life. When she literally bumps into 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) love quickly blossoms, and even though Milla’s parents despair at her infatuation with a homeless, drug addicted boy seven years her senior, they put up little resistance as her happiness is everything.

Broken down into several vignette-style chapters, Murphy’s film gradually peels away the veneer of domestic family life to reveal the internalised pain carried by all. Milla’s psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is burying away his own secrets, while his wife Anna (Essie Davis) is dependent on Xanax and a tray full of pills that barely hold her together. Energised with raw sex appeal, Wallace’s Moses at first appears to be the wildcard as his issues are more outwardly exposed, but he fits into this distressed family unit because they are just as broken as he is, albeit in different ways.

While this is Milla’s story about finding love and her desire to experience the things in life that may be stolen from her, it’s the detailed characterisation of those around her that make it sing. Away from the hammed-up Hollywood bad guy roles Mendelsohn is always a delight, while Davis (who many will know best for The Babadook) subtly shows the toll living with this sort of nightmare can take on a mother. Scanlen at times veers into clichéd indie territory with her quirky dances (and the use of a Stones Throw record feels somewhat staged) but she is more than equal to her peers. Wallace’s magnetic presence steals the show, however, showing the heart of a young man with a lot to give but little idea about how to do so.

This is a highly impressive calling card for Murphy whose film received numerous festival plaudits (Wallace won the best actor award at Venice) and it translates well into the real world. While there’s always a sense of tragedy hovering in the background, the dialogue is rich with humour and relatable idiosyncrasies of life that feel lived and genuine. The amount of time that passes by is never made entirely clear, which makes sense given the film’s broader themes, and even though Milla’s life has been frozen by her illness she remains determined to live it at a pace she controls.

Babyteeth is released on VOD in the US from June 19.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

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