Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace and Essie Davis star in the young adult drama Babyteeth, that’s now in UK cinemas – and it’s well worth seeking out.
A dying teenage girl starts a relationship with a young man her parents deem unsuitable. We’ve been here before, right? But that was before Babyteeth, the debut feature from Shannon Murphy. Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is just 15 but finds comfort in the shape of Moses (Toby Wallace), who is nearly 10 years older and a drug dealer.
You get why her parents are protective. Not that we’re ever told the nature of her condition – that it’s serious is to know enough – but they’re not exactly cut out for the job. Father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, preoccupied with his job, paying for the family’s affluent lifestyle and making sure wife Anne (Essie Davis) has the antidepressants she needs and craves. Into that designer home existence comes Moses with his tattoos, half-shaved haircut and seriously damaging habit. And Milla is in no doubt that she wants him there.
This is no conventional young adult drama, but one that treads the lines between teen romance, adult drama and quirky comedy. It’s a big ask for a first film, one that doesn’t always come off, although this is more down to the script from Rita Kalnejais than Murphy. A flurry of sub-plots lead nowhere. The most entertaining sees Henry flirting with heavily pregnant neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay). Milla’s school and her isolation from the other girls look like becoming significant, but are left in mid-air, while her music tutor, Gideon (Eugene Gilfedder) is an ex-admirer of Anne’s. None of them add much to the narrative and the division of the story into neat chapters is done so frequently that some of them feel more like soundbites.
But – and it’s a large but – Babyteeth is both a beautifully observed and acted tragicomedy, as well as a profoundly moving experience. When a film has this much energy and shows so much compassion and understanding for its protagonists, especially the younger ones, it’s not difficult to overlook its shortcomings. You wonder who the real adults are, but you’re also finding it hard not to sympathise with Henry and Anne, who are facing the most devastating loss imaginable. All four actors are superb, but Scanlen is astonishing, confused by what’s happening to her but equally determined to make every second of her life count. And in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Mendelsohn demonstrates there’s way more to him than just playing the baddie. It’s been a long time coming.
For all its faults, Babyteeth will make you laugh and leave you bereft in equal measure. Full credit to Murphy for completely avoiding even the slightest whiff of mawkishness, instead moving between delicacy and intensity with consummate ease.
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