Babyteeth Blu-ray Review

Films about adolescent romance, family disharmony and terminal illness generally tend to wobble along the fine line between spirit-crushing realism and gloopy sentimentality.

What happens if you throw all these elements together and give it a bit of a shake-up? The answer lies in Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, Babyteeth.

The film, with a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais’ adapting her own stage play, tells the story of Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a 15-year-old suffering from a terminal illness.

One day, Milla literally bumps into 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) at the train station. After they chat for a bit, she develops a nosebleed, and he rushes to her aid. Well, after procuring some cash from her beforehand.

It’s not the most traditional meet-cute, but there’s an instant connection between the two.

Meanwhile Milla’s parents are having relationship issues. They are struggling with intimacy and dad Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), a therapist, prescribes medication to mum Anna (Essie Davis) to help her cope with Milla’s illness.

When Milla brings Moses home one day, her parents disapprove of the age gap, not to mention Moses’ apparent waywardness. Ben and, particularly, Anna make their feelings clear, but Moses is undeterred about seeing Milla again.

So begins Milla and Moses’ courtship, albeit a highly unusual one: is Moses with Milla because he genuinely cares? Or because of the possibility of easy drug prescriptions? Or because he is seeking a surrogate family? Can it be all three?

Orbited by various other characters, ranging from a passionate music tutor to a pregnant neighbour, Milla and Moses’ relationship forces everyone to re-evaluate their values and their assumptions about life.

The compelling central performances are primarily what make the film work. Scanlen’s Milla is decisive and brave, yet vulnerable and dependent; and when it comes Wallace’s Moses, you can understand why Milla warms to him as quickly as Anna warns him off.

Mendelsohn and Davis are near-household names by now and give a solid portrayal of a crumbling couple, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

The characters never quite act in the way you expect them to, particularly during a key moment at the end of the film, which takes some getting used to but perhaps that’s the whole point: what is the right way to act and behave in life? Particularly in circumstances like these?

The film is divided into specifically-titled sections, which feel more like isolated vignettes than sequential chapters, so the chronology of events is not always clear; this actually strengthens the film’s spell and, combined with the nuanced performances, makes it feel messy and real.

There is a subtle dream-like quality woven through the film, especially in the scenes when Milla is lost in dance, which nicely counterbalances the realism and is key to the film treading the aforementioned fine line.

Murphy’s film deals with its themes in an original way and proves to be an interesting concoction: disorienting, uplifting, frustrating and heart-breaking. Then again, that’s life, isn’t it.

Conor Brennan

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Dates ‘n stuff

December 2020