How does one tell a coming of age story when the main character might not even make it to their 18th birthday? This is the question that first-time Australian director Shannon Murphy (TV's 'Killing Eve') explores in 'Babyteeth', a new entry into the teen cancer subgenre, which covers familiar ground with such humour and beauty that puts it heads and shoulders above anything the category has previously had to offer.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen, 'Little Women') is a 16-year-old girl living in Sydney trying to fit a lifetime into the precious few months her cancer has left her with. It has also made her a recluse, hanging out with her violin teacher and trying to pass through high school without incident. Her parents are no help; Milla's psychiatrist father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, 'Captain Marvel') copes with his daughter's illness in ways including, but not limited to, dipping into drug stashes intended for patients to subdue himself and his wife Anna (Essie Davis, 'Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears'). Milla seems determined to keep her existence a quiet one until Moses (Toby Wallace, TV's 'The Society'), a 23-year-old rat-tailed drug dealer with a heart of gold, comes quite literally crashing into her orbit.
'Babyteeth' excels over other teen cancer movies of the same breed in how it traverses the tear-jerker tropes one expects from teen cancer movies, treating Milla's cancer as an unwelcome elephant in the room as it takes its time fleshing out its four very flawed leads (in fact, Milla's illness is never even alluded to until she appears in her home, bald-headed, roughly 20 minutes into the film, a lethal thorn in her side). To expect anything less than great performances from Mendelsohn and Davis at this point feels foolish, once again proving themselves here as among the best talent the Australian film industry has to offer. Davis channels the trauma of her character from 'The Babadook' to make the strung-out Anna's sober snaps to reality all the more volatile, whereas Mendelsohn's Henry finds his morals bending to accommodate for his daughter's physical pain and his own emotional pain. 'Babyteeth' never pulls its punches when its characters constantly mess up, its moral compass thrown out the window due to the extenuating circumstances its characters find themselves in. Moses is undoubtedly the wrong match for Milla, but who are Anna and Henry to disapprove when it might be their daughter's only chance at love?
Over her three most notable roles, it would be easy to think Eliza Scanlen has been typecast as the perpetually ill teenage girl, and it is her ability to make each of these performances so distinct that makes Scanlen such a fine actress. We've seen her play this type of character as cherubic but deranged in TV's 'Sharp Objects' and as meek and compassionate in 'Little Women', but the cynicism and desperation she brings to Milla makes this her most nuanced exploration of illness in teenagers to date. Heightening her performance is the electric chemistry between Scanlen and Wallace, whose drug-addled twitches and slurred line deliveries are so down pat you would think Wallace got high to prepare for each scene, yet his tired eyes brim with such warmth and sincerity that Milla's and Moses' romance, however morally wrong, feels like one worth rooting for. Wallace has been making waves across Australian and American screens for the last few years, and with 'Babyteeth' he proves that it is well and truly time for him to be receiving much larger recognition for his work. To posit a single performance over another is a major discredit to the incredible work Scanlen, Wallace, Mendelsohn and Davis all turn in, and it's been a very long time since I've seen a film where the lead performances felt so balanced in both their quality and the material the screenplay gives them to work with.
'Babyteeth' covers familiar ground with such humour and beauty that puts it heads and shoulders above anything the teen cancer subgenre has previously had to offer.
'Babyteeth' is lifted from a play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the film's screenplay, and Murphy and Kalnejais' backgrounds in theatre gives way to some beautiful visuals. Murphy and Kalnejais take full advantage of the move from stage to screen, using tight close-ups on Milla's face to highlight the wonders of first love, turning something as simple as watching the back of Moses' neck into a moment that envelops her for the entire commute to school. By the time the shattering and horrifying third acts rolls around (one mostly dialogue-free scene has haunted me ever since my first watch), Murphy has her audience fully hooked, to the point where she keeps major plot moments off screen, obscuring character's faces and bodies with props to heighten tension.
The only real flaw of the film is the privilege Milla's parents exercise, and their embracing of Moses may be a bit too far-fetched for a general audience. Sure, there are laughs aplenty when Anna declares letting her daughter's drug dealer paramour move into their home is "the worst possible parenting I can imagine", but the whole affair reeks of a saviour complex, a way for Henry and Anna to save someone else when they can't save their own daughter. For a film that so readily dives into messy and complex emotions and ideas, it's strange that the film allows perhaps its most messy idea to be resolved so tidily.
Stories of adolescence are some of the hardest to tell on screen in new and interesting ways, and the added complexities of terminal illness and a morally questionable teen romance that 'Babyteeth' adds to this makes the film feel like a miracle in how well it pulls almost every element off. Its cast and crew are at the top of their game, resulting in a film that's just as heartbreaking as any other teen cancer film, but elevated through a humour and cynicism, as well as incredible performances, assuring it won't be forgotten any time soon.