Babyteeth review: Australian coming-of-ager is a thrillingly subversive work

Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla Finlay, a 15-year-old with cancer who falls for the soulful bad boy caught stealing drugs from her home 

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 14 August 2020 08:32
Babyteeth trailer

Dir: Shannon Murphy. Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn. 15 cert, 118 mins

Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth seems to exist in another world. It’s exactly like our own – only here, it’s impossible to resist one’s own compulsions – whether medicinal, existential, or romantic. It makes for a thrillingly subversive work. Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) is 15 years old. She has cancer. One day, a young man (Toby Wallace) barrels into her as he tries to catch his train, almost knocking her onto the tracks. His tattoos look like artful little doodles. One dances along his cheekbone, framing his puppy-dog eyes. He’s a soulful bad boy to his core – irresistible to a girl facing the greatest of uncertainties.

She gets a nosebleed; he suddenly pulls her down to the floor so he can mop up the blood with his shirt. The moment rests uncomfortably between romantic spontaneity and street harassment. He tells her he’s been kicked out of his house (due to a drug addiction, as we later learn) and asks for some money to find a place for the night. She does one better and invites him home.

Milla’s parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), have their own strange relationship – messy, occasionally grotesque, but bolstered by an unwavering commitment to each other. Is it love or co-dependency? Henry is a psychiatrist, Anna is an ex-concert pianist. He gives her pills that soothe the edges of her perpetual distress, as Davis’s face melts like rubber into psychotropic delight (the actor is as enthralling to watch as ever). At times, they feel more like doctor and patient than husband and wife.

Anna and Henry aren’t comfortable with the fact Milla’s new suitor, Moses, is eight years older than her. They’re even less comfortable with the fact he regularly swipes drugs from their house. But they tolerate it because he makes Milla happy. When a family is so submerged in hopelessness, the strangest of compromises are made.

Rita Kalnejais’s script, based on her own stage play, divides the action into short chapters – each has a title like “Romance (Part 1)” or “Just Another Diamond Day”, often changing the entire context of a scene in just a few words. These are vignettes of disjointed youth – we skip from Milla and Moses’s meet (not so) cute to him trimming her hair with dog clippers, from impulse to impulse. Henry finds himself inexplicably drawn to his pregnant neighbour (Emily Barclay), who keeps screaming for the lost dog that shares his name. Milla makes bird calls to vent her frustrations, as she storms down hallways and away from confrontation – Scanlen, who already perfected playing an ailing teen in last year’s Little Women, telegraphs Milla’s pain without reverting to amateur dramatics.

In her feature debut, Murphy offers the same dark absurdity as her work on Killing Eve – take the triad of bichons frises, prized show dogs, that yap away in the corner of Moses’s family home, as he and his mother descend into another screaming match. Then there’s the way the bright, Australian sun makes everything look a touch more lurid, like a holiday postcard. Babyteeth offers us life, amplified.

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