Shannon Murphy’s extraordinary debut feature is a touching story about a family who has to deal with the upcoming loss of their beloved daughter.
cover photo via Netflix
One of the only two female directors in the 21-film competition line-up for the 2019 Venice Film Festival, Shannon Murphy surprises and moves us with a striking debut about a terminally ill Australian teenage girl who becomes obsessed with a 23-year-old drug-addict. The story might sound like yet another cancer-themed teen melodrama, but Murphy’s heart-breaking feature avoids any trope of its genre and focuses instead on portraying a group of people who are hiding in their own shells as they are forced to deal with their wounds for the sake of the ones they love.
The film begins with a shot of a bloody tooth sinking into a glass of water. The tooth belongs to Milla (Eliza Scanlen from Sharp Objects), a 16-year-old sick with cancer. Milla’s illness is disrupting her increasingly depressed family. Her mother Anna (Essie Davis) is a retired musician, too often numbed with Xanax, while her father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn in his best performance after Animal Kingdom) is a psychiatrist who cannot face his own emotional block.
One morning on her way to school, Milla meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a drug-addict with a face tattoo and rat-tail haircut. Milla is dying and Moses seems like the kind of guy who is not afraid of anything, not even death. An unlikely connection forms straight away between the two, even when Moses asks her for money because he has been evicted from his own house by a mother who rejects him. Milla asks Moses to cut her hair with poodle clippers and she later brings him home for dinner, to her parents’ dismay.
Thanks to a script (inspired by screenwriter Rita Kalnejais’s own stage play) that challenges the bucket-list trope of the coming of age cancer drama, the plot then develops in ways that are mostly unexpected, with scenes divided in chapters –“Nausea”, “Insomnia” and “Fuck this”– that follow Milla’s psychological development and a soundtrack that alternates Mozart with modern soul and electro. Some of the most emotional scenes are also the most simple, such as the chapter “What the Dead Said to Milla”, where Milla quietly sits in the silence of the night, her bald head half in the light and half in the darkness. As the story goes on, the characters’ quirkiness and problematic family dynamics that took us aback in the beginning become precisely what reaches out and brings realness to this film. The most significant moment in this regard is when Henry makes the desperate decision to take Moses in his house because it gives Milla hope. It is a moving scene that proves how parents are willing to just anything for the sake of a daughter in pain.
Davis and Medelsohn do a sensational job in portraying two parents that are about to lose the person they love the most. Murphy gives us vibrant glimpses into this family that are never too happy or hopeful such as when Henry keeps trying to take pictures of his daughter, knowing she will soon be gone. Scanlen, who has already proved more than worthy of complex roles in Sharp Objects, is perfect as Milla, conveying both her powerlessness and rebellious resilience. Opposite her, Wallace is a revelation, his vulnerability and motives often difficult to read, yet his affection for a girl he cannot desire always painfully in display, even when he does not want it to be.
The biggest strength of Babyteeth (which, during its premiere, had the audience in tears) is its true and honest depiction of hope and pain, a depiction that is never too cute or romantic. Milla and Moses cannot be together and Murphy never deceives us. Milla is in love with Moses because he embodies an energy that she longs for too: the freedom of living each day as though it were the last. On the other hand, even though by the end it becomes clear that Moses also cares for Milla, he cannot seem to leave his demons behind. Despite the tragic ending, the final scenes cast a hopeful look into the future and give us the feeling that life is worth living no matter what.
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