Teen tragedy takes a back seat to first love and terrible parenting in this nimble dramedy
By Diana Beechener
Milla (Eliza Scanlen: The Devil All the Time) stands on a train platform in her school uniform, seconds away from meeting the love of her life. She’s got all the signs of gawky youth: her shoulders are in a self-conscious hunch, she glares sullenly at other girls talking nearby, and she looks uncomfortable in her own skin. She looks young for her age—she’s even got one of her baby teeth still lodged in her mouth. She’s just like every other 16-year-old trying to figure things out. But there’s one thing that excuses a bit of Milla’s teen petulance. Milla is fighting cancer.
So, when Moses (Toby Wallace: The Society), a tattooed, scruffy boy of 23 barrels by her, Milla is thrilled to have a distraction. She decides that Moses is the perfect man—goofy, afraid of nothing, and will drive her parents insane. She immediately skips school and invites him to spend the day with her.
Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn: The Outsider) and Anna (Essie Davis: Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears), are already coping with a lot. Psychiatrist Henry is attempting to project a calm exterior, but he’s lost as to what to do with his family’s emotions or his own. Anna feels herself unraveling, and lets Henry prescribe her pills that keep her slightly loopy so she doesn’t have to deal with the reality that her daughter may not recover. They’re trying their best, attempting to weather their collective successes and failures.
Though Henry and Anna are often at odds with how to handle Milla’s sickness, they’re both in agreement about one thing: Moses is a nightmare and has no business hanging out with their daughter. It’s a shame, then, that allowing Milla to see Moses seems to be the only thing keeping Milla’s spirits up. Now the couple must decide if it’s worse to allow their possibly dying daughter to experience first love, or kill her spirit in the name of good parenting.
Babyteeth isn’t the first dying teen movie. In fact, there’s a whole subgenre of weepy movies designed for adolescent audiences and those who like a good cry. There’s a basic formula to them: Tragic pretty girl is wise beyond her years, meets a troubled boy, their romance makes him a better person and helps her family deal with her death, a sad pop song plays, she dies nobly, and everyone cries through the credits. But director Shannon Murphy (making her feature debut) is more interested in circumventing these tropes than honoring them. The result is a weird, silly, and wonderful movie about four people doing their best and failing miserably the whole time.
Murphy takes a well-worn genre and breathes new life into it with some excellent instincts toward her quartet of main characters. The flawed foursome is not typical of those you’d find in this type of movie, but all this bad behavior isn’t an attempt to shock, it’s just horribly sad people attempting to deal with a situation they don’t understand. Murphy makes it clear that even in the midst of horrid arguments and unkind words, there’s deep love between these people. Milla finds her mother frustrating, but she still wants to crawl into her lap and weep when the world is too much. Anna and Henry have hissing arguments, but always with the understanding that this is just a passing storm.
The film is aided by lovely cinematography by Andrew Commis (Angel of Mine), who creates a sort of candy-colored dream world for Milla and her family. Murphy and Commis work to make the city seem alien and bright as Milla explores it, experiencing parties and drinking like some sort of otherworldly adventure.
Though the film features sharp dialogue and hilarious action, it’s the performances that make the movie something truly special. The heart of the film is Scanlen, who manages to charm even when she’s being a brat and insisting her pill-popping adult boyfriend stay the night. It’s a lovely, sweet performance of a girl on the cusp of both death and adulthood.
Davis and Mendelsohn are fantastic as bewildered parents just hoping to do something right for their dying child. They know they should ban Moses from their home, but they don’t know if it’s fair to deny their daughter the joys of young love. Davis is filled with dread in every look and movement, teetering on tears while plastering a smile on her face. Mendelsohn’s Henry is so busy putting on a happy face to keep his daughter and wife content, he’s dying inside.
If you’re a fan of beautiful acting and quirky plotting, give Babyteeth a try. It’s a wonderful twist on the dying teen genre that leaves you with a sense of hope instead of merely mining tears from you.
Babyteeth is available on Hulu with a subscription.
Good Dramedy * R * 118 mins.