‘Babyteeth’ Review

It’s completely understandable if the first thing you think of when reading Babyteeth’s plot synopsis is The Fault In Our Stars. They do, after all, possess similar stories – a young girl with a serious-bordering-on-terminal disease finds a first love that provides new insights on her life and her journey to adulthood. However, comparing Babyteeth to the YA blockbuster is akin to comparing The Godfather to Gotti – sure, they bear some similarities, but one is a collection of clichés whereas the other is an artistic achievement based on the strength of its writing, directing, and acting. For not only is Babyteeth a smarter, funnier, lovelier version of John Green’s breakout novel – it stands out as one of the year’s best offerings, in any genre.

Sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) desperately desires a normal life. Unfortunately, that is likely an impossibility, as she suffers from incurable cancer, and likely won’t live to see 18. Her parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) want her to experience as much of life as possible, but with the weight of her disease combined with their own underlying personal conflicts and issues, their happiness hangs on by a thread. However, as they all reach the end of their prospective ropes, something strange, disquieting, and strangely lovely happens: Milla meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a smalltime drug dealer. He’s clearly the worst – he’s 23, he has a rattail and a face tattoo, he’s strung out at almost all times, and he’s possibly the dumbest motherf*cker any of them have ever met. But Milla falls head over heels, with an honesty and depth not even the adults in her life can understand. And what follows is an emotional journey that will shape all four of them through decisions good and bad, memories sweet and bittersweet, and an all-encompassing sense of love.

At its core, Babyteeth is a story about how people react to tragedy and grief, and all the emotions and responses humans feel when coping – grace, love, lust, maturity, immaturity, and beyond. At the center of it all is Milla, a character who must balance all these emotions while simultaneously going through adolescence and approaching the end of her life span. It’s a difficult position to be in – she’s somehow both wise beyond her years (in many ways, she may be the wisest one in any given scene) AND an immature child, and the film wholly understands this. It’s why the film opens with her contemplating jumping in front of a train, and why it constantly juxtaposes her with both girls her own age and her own parents. No matter which situation she’s forced to be in, Milla is forced to have the strongest grasp of her emotions. The other girls in school aren’t mean, they just don’t know how to handle this type of situation. And her parents…well, they have their own issues. A large chunk of the film explores the decisions – both good and bad – that Henry and Anna make in trying to appease their daughter. When Milla brings home Moses for the first time, it’s a tough position for them to be in. On the one hand, he’s a literal scumbag who’s years older than her and clearly strung out on drugs. But on the other hand, how many opportunities is she going to have for a first date, a first kiss, a first time?

After all, that’s Anna’s greatest desire for her daughter – to live a normal life for what little time they have. Every decision they make is an extension of their fears and grief over their daughter, to the point that when they have serious marital problems, they are unable to talk about them without addressing that their actions stem from their dying daughter. It’s a double-edged sword, really – their losing their daughter to both adolescence and cancer. Not every decision made is the right one. The characters know this, and the filmmakers expect the audience to know this. But that’s the central conceit of the film: how do you handle these difficult decisions surrounding someone who won’t live to see her eighteenth birthday and engage in the grown-up activities she so desperately desires? This is a film where the characters express their emotions loudly, boldly, and painfully, often in ways I’ve never seen on film before. And while its final act teases at a dark turn that almost put me off completely (the sequence alone is what prevents it from reaching A+ range), it even turns that into a weird, sweet, funny metaphor. This is a film about emotions, and the choices we make because of them, and it works beautifully.

Of course, the reason we care about these emotional moments and dramatic choices is because of the way director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais let their characters grow, and flow, and live. Perhaps it’s because of the mixture of teenage rebellion and a dying girl’s wish to live, but the way these characters react, both to their surroundings and to each other have an honest, strange, loving nature that helps elevate the film over its contemporaries and clichés. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen hilariously uptight parents and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. But we haven’t seen them quite like this. I mean, when we meet Anna and Henry for the first time, they have to schedule sex as an extension of the free therapy sessions Henry has to provide for the clinically depressed Anna. Theirs is a unique relationship, filled with realistic moments that give us a window into their complicated lives – like Henry yelling at the politicians on the news while the women talk dresses, or Anna lambasting her husband for not fixing the shower properly, then casually mentioning in the middle of the argument, “There’s water in there, don’t slip.” These are loving moments that allow us to connect with the family, to relate to them, and to establish them as a family outside of the brief period we’re with them.

And their dynamic only gets better as outside forces enter the picture. I could write an entire essay on Toby, the pregnant twenty-something neighbor that Henry becomes obsessed with after she casually tells him “I read online that it’s ok to smoke when you’re pregnant, so it’s gotta be true!” But honestly, there’s no better wild card in the family dynamic than Moses. Watching the parents both react to and react with the drug-dealing twenty-something their daughter brought home from the train station is hilarious, and not just because Moses is a complex character in and of himself (although his torn feelings between wanting to protect Milla, falling in love with Milla, and using Milla as access to her father’s drug stash could be a great film in and of itself). I love the way the parents are more annoyed than terrified when Moses tries to rob them at knifepoint:

“Henry: Wait, you threatened my wife with a meat cleaver?”
“Anna: To be fair, he is very inept…”

The central quartet flesh out in lovely, unique ways that feel completely universal and yet wholeheartedly unique, whether they’re laughing, smirking, loving, or fighting (a standout scene for the four of them), and by the time the film reaches its expected, but no less heartbreaking conclusion, you’ll feel more connected to these characters than anyone else you’ve encountered since the beginning of quarantine.

But above all, Babyteeth is a love story, and it captures young love with the same passion of Say Anything… Actually, that might be the apt comparison, even over Fault In Our Stars. This is the 2020 Aussie answer to Cameron Crowe’s story of star-crossed lovers and strained parental relationships. Babyteeth asks a litany of questions about love, some of which it chooses to answer, and some it chooses to leave hanging for audience interpretation. Is this rebellion or a crush? Is Moses manipulative or an inspiration to a dying girl to live? Is Milla actively in love or is she just settling because she knows she doesn’t have long? And why is Moses obsessed with this much-younger girl? Is it because she has access to drugs? Is it because she fawns over him? Or does he actually appreciate their chemistry? I’m not sure of the answers to any of these, I’m honestly just here for the ride. I do, however, have some context clues to the answers. I know that Milla is smart enough to know that he’ll always be after the drugs, to some degree. Once the film establishes that, it opens the new door of “How much do either of them care once they start to develop feelings?”

And I do know that our sweet, rat-tailed Moses, who literally turns their meet-cute into a scam for money, does care about Milla a great deal, at least to some degree – when she follows him to a party, and she tries to drink (and immediately gets sick), he asks:

“Moses: Are you allowed to drink on your medication?”
“Milla: It’s never come up.”

The film portrays Moses as both sexy and sh*tty – it’s fully aware of how skeevy his behavior is, but there’s a sweetness to his bravado. He’s a lovable idiot – a realistic Wes Bentley from American Beauty. His earnestness and capacity for love shine through in every scene, whether he’s trying to quit drugs for her, making an earnestly terrible dinner for the parents, or dancing with her at a karaoke bar. At the end of the film’s second act, Moses confesses to the smitten girl, “I don’t want to hurt you.” It seems like a cliché, but Wallace plays it so honest and so straight, it feels fresh and real like the best lines from a John Hughes movie. And Milla’s response – “So don’t” – is just as deserving of a retort. The YA love story has been in dire need of a revival in recent years, and Milla and Moses might be just the couple to give it that second life.

Along the way, Murphy and Kalnejais elevate the story with a master class in filmmaking. Murphy is a decisive, clear director, while Kalnejais is a phenomenal writer, and together they help elevate this story over the predictable YA fare it could have been. Sure, you’ll be able to guess some beats, but you’ll be completely thrown by others – you know, sort of like real life. The duo structures the film perfectly, so that high highs are punctuated by low lows – Milla tries on her very first formal dress, but immediately finds a lump, for instance. And along the way, Murphy experiments with tone, editing styles, and musicality, while never feeling twee or show-offish in any way. Each new segment of the film is introduced with hilariously wry title cards – titles like “F*ck This,” “I’m A Little High,” or “Diamond Day” as the song “Diamond Day” plays. Oh, and speaking of the music, the soundtrack is haunting and lovely, especially the uses of “Come Meh Way” and “For Real,” which will stand out in your mind for weeks to come. And Murphy works carefully with her team (especially cinematographer Andrew Commis and editor Stephen Evans) to create mesmerizing, technically astounding sequences well beyond the film’s purported budget – like the psychedelic effects on display when Milla takes her first drink, or the way the sun shines unbelievably brighter (yet somehow lovelier) than any film I can think of in recent memory. This is not just a well-acted film – this is a well-made film, all around.

Yet it is, first and foremost, a well-acted film, and I mean this from the top down. The core quartet is actively astounding from scene to scene, starting at the top with Eliza Scanlen. Scanlen has had a magnetic presence since her 2018 breakout in Sharp Objects, and has popped up everywhere from Broadway to last year’s Little Women. As Milla, Scanlen is a phenomenal presence, carrying a wisdom beyond her years and towering over her fellow performers while continuously looking up at them with her diminutive status. Watching her emotional roller coaster is an awe-inspiring experience, and I dare you not to fall in love with her as she expresses her rare instances of joy through dance – whether at her violin rehearsal or as a distraction so Moses can steal drugs. In many ways, it reminds me of Carey Mulligan’s breakout in An Education – and I’m sure we’ll similarly be talking about Scanlen as an iconic actress in ten years’ time. Meanwhile, first time actor Toby Wallace is a hilariously charming skeez as Moses. Wallace captures the charming, sexy, funny side of the character while never softening his edges. He also walks the careful line between too smart or too dumb in any given scene – I love his interaction with Scanlen when he tries to claim they go to the same school, despite his clearly being much older and the fact she clearly goes to an all-girls private school. Wallace plays the role as a cross between Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler and Franco’s Alien, and when combined with his electrifying chemistry with Scanlen, he steals the show.

As for the adults, there are three performances I desperately want to mention. Emily Barclay’s Toby is a fantastically weird character, thanks to her ever-missing dog, her reliance on Internet chat rooms for pregnancy advice, and her hilarious way with words. It is easy to see why Henry becomes obsessed with her, and if I had one wish with this film, it would be more Toby moments. The stealth star of the show is Essie Davis’s Anna, who is one of the year’s best characters. Davis captures the complex emotional state of Anna, the clinically depressed drug addict mother who can’t cope with the fact her only child is slowly dying. She stands out from her first scene, drugged out on antidepressants at the dinner table and trying to comprehend what her daughter sees in the sleazy drug dealer sitting across from her. Yet Davis’ performance only grows more nuanced, more complex, more beautiful, and more impressive as the film goes on. I’m not sure whether it was harder to get into character here or in 2014’s The Babadook, but it is clear that Davis has a niche for playing a specific type of character. But if there’s one actor who will absolutely floor you, it’s Ben Mendelsohn. We’ve been blessed as of late with a line of terrific movie dads, including Lady Bird’sTracy Letts, Eighth Grade’s Josh Hamilton, and Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg. You can now add Mendelsohn to that list for his performance as Henry. Mendelsohn inflicts each scene with emotional nuance and pain, whether he’s trying to decipher his relationship with the neighbor girl, salvaging his relationship with his wife, or coping with the compounding grief surrounding his daughter. Every little moment is carefully chosen and nuanced, and while I was originally unsure of the necessity of an epilogue tacked onto the film’s ending, it’s worth it to see Mendelsohn completely BRINGING it as an actor. It’s some of the finest work of both this year and the entirety of his cinematic career, and I dare you not to bawl during the sequence.

Babyteeth is a bold reinvigoration of a litany of subgenres. It’s one of the best high school love stories in a generation. It’s one of the finest depictions of illness and grief…ever? And it’s the type of family drama that would make James L. Brooks and Edward Albee blush. I adored this film from beginning to end. I adored its talented ensemble and the range they were able to portray. I loved the crisp, lovely writing of Rita Kalnejais. I loved the risky, yet simplistic direction by Shannon Murphy. And I loved the way this film made me feel. Great art doesn’t necessarily need to be about something. It can just evoke a mood; an embodiment of emotions and ideas meant to help you work through your own issues, dramas, and flaws. No one in Babyteeth is perfect. How can you expect them to be? They’re experiencing something truly traumatic beyond most of our comprehensions. And yet we love them anyway – because the film knows that deep down, these are lovely, goodhearted people. The filmmakers let that shine through, the actors allow us to experience that sense of love, and we the audience are granted the opportunity to bask in its warmth for two hours. See Babyteeth. Let yourself feel again.

A

Babyteeth is currently available for rental on iTunes and Amazon

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