Review: Babyteeth

Year: 2019
Runtime: 117 Minutes
Director: Shannon Murphy
Writer: Rita Kalnejais
Stars: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis

By Bianca Garner

The best way to describe Shannon Murphy’s engrossing and visually stunning “Babyteeth” is to imagine if Andrea Arnold directed “The Fault in Our Stars”. If this hasn’t piqued your interest already, then bear with me because there’s plenty of more wonderful things to say about this delight of a film.

Based on screenwriter Rita Kalnejais’ play of the same name, “Babyteeth” marks the arrival of an exciting fresh and innovative female filmmaker. Murphy gets extra points from us for selecting an all-female production and direction team, and for tackling the ‘cancer’ rom-com subgenre in a way that doesn’t feel over sentimental or contrived. 

“Babyteeth” follows the unusual love-story of 16-year-old Milla (Elizabeth Scanlan) and Moses (Toby Wallace), an older drug dealer and addict. Milla is dying from cancer and her parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and neurotic musician Anna (Essie Davis), are having their own crisis trying to come to terms with what is happening.

At first, we’re not sure what Moses’ intentions are and whether he sees Milla as a way for him to access prescription pills. He’s not exactly a good influence on Milla, but in a way he manages to bring her out of her highly sheltered life. 

Elizabeth Scanlan in Babyteeth (2019) Courtesy of IFC Midnight

The film is split into short chapters with titles that flash on the screen, titles like ‘When Milla met Moses on Platform 4’, ‘Anna and Henry’s Tuesday Appointment’, ‘Relapse’. In what is perhaps the funniest sequence, Milla brings back Moses to have dinner with her parents. Her mother is high off her face on drugs, and starts eating ice cubes. Later on in the film, Anna declares “That boy has problems” only for Milla to snap back, “So do I.”

“The best way to describe Shannon Murphy’s engrossing and visually stunning “Babyteeth” is to imagine if Andrea Arnold directed “The Fault in Our Stars”.”

Milla’s mother isn’t the only one to be falling apart, Henry seems to be having his own middle life crisis, lusting after the pregnant neighbour across the street. At no point, do we judge any of these dysfunctional characters, it isn’t a surprise that any of them behave in such outrageous ways, it’s just a by-product of the crazy world that surrounds them. 

While the film has its very comedic moments, there are more serious and dramatic ones as well. Murphy manages to balance the lighter moments with the dark quite successfully although the film does feel slightly too long and certain sub-plots don’t exactly lead anywhere. There’s certain side characters that feel just a little unnecessary, but our main focus is on Milla, Moses, Anna and Henry. Each actor plays their role perfectly. Wallace manages to portray a sensitivity and vulnerability to Moses in a similar way to Shia LaBeouf’s Jake in “American Honey” and it isn’t hard to see why Milla falls so head over heels in love with this bad boy.

Eliza Scanlen & Toby Wallace in Babyteeth (2019) Courtesy of IFC Midnight

Mendelsohn and Davis are simply wonderful in their roles. It could have been easy for these characters to become one-dimensional, but they seem fully rounded and well-developed. There’s one powerful scene where Anna and Henry are driving at night looking for Milla who has sneaked out to go to a party, Anna is barely holding it together but Henry is quiet and withdrawn. An angry back and forth row ensues, with Henry exclaiming, “It’s not about you, it’s about our daughter!”. Every expression on the actors’ faces conveys so much emotion and the film feels stronger by including these more serious, intimate moments. 

But it is perhaps the young actress, Eliza Scanlen who is the real star here. You may recognise Scanlen, from the HBO psychological thriller miniseries “Sharp Objects”, and she was also Elizabeth “Beth” March in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”. This twenty-one year old actress has the youthful energy and talent to play characters much younger than herself, and we fully believe that this is a real sixteen year old girl struggling to live her life as a cancer patient.

“Mendelsohn and Davies are simply wonderful in their roles…But it is perhaps the young actress, Eliza Scanlen who is the real star here.”

Milla isn’t exactly sappy or even likeable at times, she can be impulsive and destructive, but we never get the impression that she isn’t real. Her performance is raw, delicate and leaves such a lasting impression on the viewer. One can only hope that Scanlen’s career continues to flourish as she is certainly remarkable. 

Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, and Essie Davis in Babyteeth (2019) Courtesy of IFC Midnight

Special mention must also be given to Andrew Commis’ dreamlike cinematography, with the beautiful use of close-ups that manage to bring you into this surreal, stunning world. We get the impression that every second counts in this world. “Babyteeth” also features a fantastic soundtrack, including ‘Bizness’ by Tune-Yards, ‘For Real’ by Mallrat (which is the perfect lazy summer day tune), and ‘Baby’ by Donnie & Joe Emerson. Every song used in the film is a work of genius.

Some may find the dark comedic aspects and the overall tone of “Babyteeth” jarring, it does go to some very dark places, but there’s so much here to enjoy that it’s hard not to fall in love with this film. Shannon Murphy has certainly proven that she has one hell of a bite. 

AVAILABLE IN SELECT THEATERS, DIGITAL & CABLE VOD JUNE 19TH

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