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LFF 2019 Review: Babyteeth – “A very grown-up kind of teenage indie drama”

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The highs and lows of first love are amplified by terminal illness in Australian director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature. Babyteeth is a refreshing take on young love and teenage cancer, with a tight script by original playwright Rita Kalnejais.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is in dealing with familiar genre tropes without resorting to mawkish sentimentality. The ‘big c’ is not mentioned and medical scenes are minimal.

Love literally comes crashing in for 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) when scruffy, older boy Moses (Toby Wallace) almost knocks her flying on a train platform.

This anti-meet-cute sets the tragi-comic tone of the film, as well as the pairs on-screen chemistry from the off. Moses whips his shirt off as Milla’s nose bleeds, she’s intoxicated and appalled at the same time “Can you get your shirt off my face? it smells” she tells him.

Shortly after, Moses uses clippers to cut Milla’s hair, the same ones his estranged mum uses on her prize Bichon Frises. There’s something of the stray dog about Moses with his shaggy rat tail hair and big eyes, seeking affection but unsure what to do with it too.

Meanwhile, within the airy spaces of their modernist, suburban home, Milla’s parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and retired music prodigy Anna (Essie Davis) are dealing with their own issues. Private desires and neuroses creep in while they to create a sense of normality in the face of Milla’s life-limiting illness. Medication and Henry’s prescription pad is causing co-dependency and communication breakdown in their relationship.

That co-dependency is ramped-up in gloriously awkward fashion when Milla brings Moses home for dinner. Anna is high and unfiltered, Henry is trying to pretend it’s all fine while masking his fatherly disdain for the stranger at his table.

Moses is far from any parent’s ideal first boyfriend material. He’s 23 and he deals drugs, but the three enter into a begrudging pact for Milla’s sake, and his genuine warmth for her is hard to deny. Wallace is breezy and charming though hard to read, much like the young Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad – smarter and more empathetic than the sum of his life choices

But the film soars because of Milla. She balances the normal beats of the coming-of-age story: not-quite fitting in at her preppy school, falling for an older boy, fighting with her parents with a frankness about her condition. Eliza Scanlen’s face is a gift to watch. She is baby-faced, but mischievous and defiant, occasionally breaking the fourth wall with a smirk and glance, and says things her parents can’t bear to articulate.

Murphy makes bold colour, costume and music choices. Milla wears different wigs, not just to cover her shaved head, but the shape-shifting nature of teenage identify. At school, it’s long, neat and young look. Out in the night with Moses, she’s a brassier, messier blonde, experimental and older-looking. Lights bounce off her as the beats of TuneYards ‘Bizness’ let her escape reality. At home, a green, Ramona Flowers-esque choppy bob is playful. The boy meets girl tropes fizz through Andy Commis hand-held camera work, particularly in an achingly indie date scene, albeit one that savours the joy of the present.

It’s teenage drama in a similar register to Diary of a Teenage Girl, though not quite as dark, it treats teens and adults with equal complexity. Just like Babyteeth before they fall, the film wobbles a couple of times. A subplot involving Henry in a moment of midlife crisis is a bit of a misstep that doesn’t really pay off, but the supporting cast like neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay) give a lightness of touch to Milla’s world outside the intensity of sickness and confusing love.

When the significance of the title Babyteeth reveals itself, it’s a powerful moment, delivered with an almost violent jolt. The film has an elegant, tearjerker pull too. In a single moment, Ben Mendlesohn’s face speaks volumes about the pain of holding on to grief when someone we love is still there to see it in us. With rounded performances and plenty of empathy for its characters, Babyteeth is a very grown-up kind of teenage indie drama.

Babyteeth had its UK premiere at London Film Festival and will be released by Picturehouse Entertainment, date tbc

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