Featuring superb performances and arresting visuals, this raw, affecting and astute Australian drama is far more than just another teen cancer film.
July 23, 2020
Usually, cancer movies aren't just terrible and generic — they're insulting. Too often focusing on pretty young things succumbing slowly to the insidious disease while trying to relish their remaining time, they frequently tug at the heartstrings with shameless abandon, treating their protagonists and their plights as a mechanism to wring weepy sobs out of the audience. The Fault in Our Stars did it. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did too, even winning awards at Sundance for dressing up its efforts with an overtly quirky, cinema-worshipping vibe. So when a film hones in on a cancer-afflicted teenager yet refuses to trot out the same old tropes and cliches in the same old ways — when it instead appreciates its protagonist as the sum of everything that makes her who she is, instead of the mere cause of everyone else's sense of loss, including viewers' — it firmly, welcomely stands out.
Babyteeth is that movie, and it could never be mistaken for a standard sickness drama. As directed by Australian theatre and TV veteran-turned-feature first-timer Shannon Murphy, this lively, insightful and moving film truly sees its central figure, Milla (Little Women's Eliza Scanlen), as a person first and foremost. She isn't simply a storytelling tool used to evoke easy emotion and inspire tear-streaked faces. Nor is she a secondary figure primarily deployed to stress the extent of someone else's troubles, as many a movie that endeavours to explain away the grating behaviour of a healthy but struggling character has been known to do. Milla's flaws and difficulties aren't buffed down to a soft, saintly sheen, as has become a hallmark of illness on-screen, and her coming-of-age journey isn't presented as a bittersweet reminder that life is far too short.
Rather, Babyteeth follows the passionate Sydney high schooler as she falls for 23-year-old small-time drug dealer Moses (Acute Misfortune's Toby Wallace) while her already distressed and labouring parents watch on. Milla tumbles literally at first, during the pair's meet-cute on a Sydney train platform as the instantly recognisable station announcement tone echoes through the speakers above her. While the just-evicted Moses asks for money, he's also tender and caring, even though the two have just crossed paths. And so, immediately intrigued by and smitten with this stranger who gives her more attention for just being herself than she's become accustomed to receiving, she proposes a deal: she'll give Moses $50 if he takes to her sandy, cascading hair with clippers in a pre-treatment strike, then comes back to her sprawling suburban home to have dinner with her parents.
Initially introduced in a stilted psychiatry office sex scene — one that speaks to their flailing, failing quest to retain any normality they can during their daughter's illness — Milla's mother Anna (Essie Davis) and father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) aren't thrilled with their dinner guest. He'll still become the fourth figure in their dysfunctional family as the months pass, though, as Milla relapses and undergoes chemotherapy, ex-classical pianist Anna relies upon Henry's prescription pad to help her cope, and Henry himself begins an unexpected friendship with their pregnant neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay). As adapted from Rita Kalnejais' play by the writer herself, Babyteeth strings its tale together from moments, as the film's key quartet take each minute, second and development in their lives as it comes. Some days, Moses pilfers the household's pills. On others, Milla wrestles with the supposed be-all and end-all that is her school formal. Whether sneaking out to parties and empty karaoke bars or having animated debates, they both keep butting heads with Anna and Henry, too, who both keep attempting to tread the waters of Milla's hard-earned but always-tentative grasp on happiness.
From neon-hued exchanges that glow with yearning affection, to frank declarations that Milla and Moses' relationship "is complicated", Babyteeth is unmistakably built from familiar pieces — but it's how the film uses them that matters. When the pithy script has an antidepressant-addled Anna exclaim "what have you done with my daughter?!" to Milla, it also tasks the teen with giving the type of honest answer that only someone with cancer can: "I killed her". At every turn, this pattern continues, not that it ever plays as systematic, repetitive or predictable for an instant. Kalnejais' perceptive and writing combines with Murphy's keen eye for complicated emotions — and the roving, bouncing, ever-expressive visuals that enliven the film's parade of vibrant vignettes as well — to ensure that Babyteeth continually twists even the most well-worn of narrative details in their own direction.
In her second role as an unwell adolescent in a row, following Little Women, Scanlen gives a vivid, assured performance beneath Milla's revolving array of naturalistic, ice-blonde and turquoise wigs — another factor that lifts Babyteeth well beyond its thematic peers. She's a ball of energy when Milla is excited, anxious, angry and rebellious, plays peaceful and resigned with the same inner force, and stomachs the ignorance and condescension of the less sympathetic with quiet pain and fortitude. Unsurprisingly given the cast, she isn't the only actor in stellar form. The wiry Wallace deservedly won the Best Young Actor award at 2019's Venice Film Festival for his thoughtful work, and Davis and Mendelsohn — the latter in straight rather than menacing mode for a change (see: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One and Robin Hood) — convey the storm of conflicted feelings whirling inside Anna and Henry. In words rarely, if ever, directed at a film about a teenager with cancer, the feature's core performers all prove raw, sensitive, astute and arresting. So does this dynamic, melancholy and memorable drama itself, and it's one of the best Aussie movies that'll hit cinemas in 2020.