by George Wolf
Why would a first-time feature director make sure her camera lingers a few extra beats on one of those old karaoke videos where the visuals bear no relation to the lyrics being sung?
Because it’s a sly reinforcement of the abrupt, defiant way that Shannon Murphy is telling the story of Babyteeth, and of the unconventional soul at the heart of the film.
That soul would be Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a seriously ill Australian teen who literally bumps into the 23 year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) while waiting for a tram.
She likes his hair, so he gives her a haircut. She brings him home, and suddenly Milla’s parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) have something new to worry about.
“That boy has problems!” Mom shouts.
Milla answers, “So do I!”
True enough, and Rita Kalnejais delivers a debut screenplay that embraces the tough and the tender while taking us inside a fraying family dynamic.
Mom Anna used to be a impressive pianist, but she struggles to stay off pills and keep her tears at bay. Dad Henry is a psychiatrist who handles Milla’s illness in a more pragmatic fashion while he develops a strange fixation on the pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay).
Mendelsohn and Davis are customarily excellent, each reinforcing the different ways that grief can manifest itself, often pulling them closer and increasing their distance in equal measure. In lesser hands, the eccentricities of these characters could have dissolved into caricature or misguided comic relief, but Mendelsohn and Davis each bring a weary stoicism that keeps both parents grounded.
Scanlen, fresh off playing Beth in last year’s glorious revision of Little Women, is completely transfixing as a girl impatient to experience life. The more Milla is reminded of her sickness, the more she rebels, and Scanlen finds a mix of courage and fear that never feels false.
The whiff of death in coming-of-age dramas has often been reduced to manipulative claptrap, but Murphy takes a bulldozer to that notion with an ambitious narrative that does not allow you to get comfortable.
She introduces themes using chapter titles (some generic, some genuinely touching), transitions very abruptly and leaves some matters unexplained. Murphy’s approach is uniquely assured, requiring our attention but rewarding our emotional investment, as the few mawkish leanings are swept away by the film’s wickedly perverse sense of humor.
After years of directing shorts and TV episodes, Murphy lands on the big screen as a vibrant new voice. Like Milla, she is setting her own pace in the search for the beauty in life, and Babyteeth finds that beauty in unexpected places.