Australian actress Eliza Scanlen transitioned from soap to the big screen as sickly sister Beth March in the recent critically acclaimed adaptation of classic novel Little Women. She portrays another tragic teen in coming-of-age drama Babyteeth, the directorial debut of Shannon Murphy. Based upon Rita Kalnejais’s stage play of the same name, the plot follows high schooler Milla (Scanlen) who, whilst battling cancer, falls for Moses (Toby Wallace), a low-level drug dealer with bad tattoos and a rattail haircut. The blossoming romance is met with much disdain by her protective parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), who are both struggling to deal with their daughter’s diagnosis.
Shot in the summer sunshine with a pastel palette of greens and blues, Murphy creates a vibrant aesthetic that challenges the heavy subject matter, and this lively visual style is neatly accompanied by an upbeat song choices. Kalnejais’s script has subtle elements of comedy and avoids delving into the details of the illness itself, instead focusing its energy on the characters and the relationships impacted by it. Physically, Milla is weak and frail, but she exudes strength and positivity, fighting against her circumstances as much as her body will allow her. Finding their own problematic coping mechanisms, Anna and Henry have a compelling, turbulent marriage but their story is not without humour and as they make a questionable decision about Milla’s health and happiness, the former admits ‘this is the worst possible parenting I can imagine’.
The layers of complexities within the core quartet of characters are brilliantly realised in the stellar work from the cast. Scanlen is of course at the epicentre of the piece and effectively captures Milla’s fragility and vulnerability. However, she refuses to be defined by her condition, and the performance really emphasises the positive energy she possesses. She forms an unlikely and colourful connection with Wallace who brings more to the stereotypically roguish Moses than just depicting him as the bad boyfriend antagonist. Perhaps even more compelling that the young love story is the relationship of Milla’s parents. They appear to be brought closer together but also torn apart by the strain placed upon them, and Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn are masterful in showing this. I’ve been a huge admirer of Mendelsohn’s for a while, and as broken psychiatrist Henry, he is note-perfect.
With Babyteeth, director Shannon Murphy weaves an emotionally challenging tale but with a sensitivity that doesn’t weigh the film down in tragedy in the way that you might expect. It’s wild and rebellious and has a remarkable sense of hope as well as heartache, and the theatre material is elevated on the big screen by terrifically moving performances, a sublime soundtrack, and an exciting artistic flair.