Published on July 3rd, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
First time feature-length director Shannon Murphy comes through with an immensely charming and suitably quirky flick about falling in love and dying out of Australia.
You could describe Babyteeth, the assured directorial debut of Shannon Murphy, in a multitude of ways. You could say it’s the type of indie flick we’ve seen countless times before, rounding up the usual suspects of indie dramedy fare with its terminally ill teenager plot and its coming-of-age gravitas. Or you could frame it as a romance between a naïve 17-year-old girl and a 23-year-old drug dealer. And yet another way you could describe it would be as a film about what happens when two parents have no idea how to handle the imminent death of their daughter that they have no choice but to placate her every whim, including her crush on a boy far too old for her.
Out of these three, I much prefer the last one, because it pinpoints the underlying edge this film gives itself, setting it apart from other films of its ilk. Much of the comedy comes from this absurd situation in which the parents (played by Ben Mendelson and Essie Davis) are kind of stuck chaperoning their daughter, Mila’s, romance with a 23 year old junkie. The film succeeds because it just marinates in this awkward tension, the kind that can’t be explicitly resolved for fear of tainting the final days of Mila’s life. Her parents are a combination of spineless and traumatized, and the way they wrestle with and deny themselves their own grief intertwines compellingly with this strange romance in its own way.
Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais don’t bother with ham-fisted moral judgements. There isn’t a moment where Mila turns a corner and realizes she is being abused and taken advantage of by a full-grown man. In fact, the opposite happens. Moses (Toby Wallace) is characterized as a genuinely sweet guy, and despite his ulterior motives (he wants to steal Mila’s pills), we are made to really root for the guy, who comes from a broken home and seems to gravitate to Mila’s warmth. His is just one of the many relationships in the film that develop into meaningful and effectively wrought connections. Ultimately, it’s a familial bond that develops between the four of them—and that is the kind of ironic sanctity of it all that makes us go along with a romance that would normally seem shockingly inappropriate.
There are a few dramatic hinges that are a little too underplayed. The film has such a dedicated fidelity to its intimate and dressed-down approach that it seems to miss a couple moments that really deserve to be dramatically emphasized. A moment halfway through the film in which Mila realizes Moses has been stealing her meds comes to mind. It’s a scene that is shot and choreographed in such a way that it doesn’t really give us a lot of time to digest the emotions behind the action until the moment has already passed. However, this is really the only wonky part where we have to just get the gist. And this is more symptomatic of a cinematic choice from the director that ends up paying off enough to justify a little narrative collateral.
Eliza Scanlen, who you might recognize from HBO’s Sharp Objects mini-series, is just brilliant as Mila. She very naturally commits to her character’s worldview, her tenacity in following her heart to the bitter end. The film is called Babyteeth because it is mentioned that Mila still has a baby tooth hanging on in her mouth. That metaphor, that dialectic of childhood and maturation, is expressed rapturously by Scanlen. She brings a wide-eyed physicality to every scene, sucking in the camera’s gaze as she tessellates between glee and despair during such a strange time in her character’s life. The film’s substance is her performance, as the camera stays glued on her big blue eyes for most of its runtime.
Murphy shoots the film with a warm intimacy, using handheld cinematography with a very narrow lens that basks in its predilection for shifting its focus mid-shot. She uses it to great dramatic effect, finding small moments of humanity in between the action that coat the film in heart-rending pathos. Occasionally, cinematographer Andrew Commis dazzles us with some intoxicating images, including a sequence at a rather expressively lit house party that allows us to hone in on Mila’s unique psychology as strobe lights douse her in disorienting light. The film on the whole really rises above the typically flat and docile visual dimension that many indie films like this can be found guilty of.
The first shot of Babyteeth is a hyper-close up of a tooth sinking into a glass of water. Towards the end, Mila loses that titular tooth and drops in into a cup near her bed…The film is telling us from the beginning that this is a movie about growing up at the wrong moment, the stark irony of coming of age toward the end of one’s life. Mila loses her tooth just as she comes to terms with her mortality, just as she reaches a point where she feels ready to accept her fate. It makes the relationships in the movie feel all the more real; they are motivated not by any crass sense of illicit sensationalism, but by a desire to evoke this beautiful sense of reckless abandon. That sometimes a girl just needs to follow her heart, make mistakes, and fall in love with the wrong person in order to really live. And even though there is an age difference, it is an entirely authentic and wholesome love because it is made entirely necessary by a character who really has no other choice.