Babyteeth

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Babyteeth
"Milla might be dying but she's also, paradoxically, finding her way in the world and working out what she wants, even if time is short." | Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Films about people with cancer can be a real wallow in the ravages of the disease, but Shannon Murphy's drama takes a refreshingly matter of fact approach to the illness suffered by the central character in her debut film. Milla (Eliza Scanlen, who people might have caught in Little Women and who is fabulous at conveying mixed emotions here) is 16 and, though experiencing all the usual feelings that come with that age, is also undergoing chemotherapy that is making her hair fall out.

Near the start of the film, she appears to be considering jumping in front of a train, until an older boy, Moses (Toby Wallace, who is the perfect mix of cocky and wounded), barges into her. Not exactly your regular meet-cute - but like almost everything in Murphy's film it feels real and unmanufactured. Moses doesn't look well and it's soon evident he has a drug habit, something which, in addition to having been kicked out by his own mother, gives him pharmaceutical reasons for wanting to come home with Milla.

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The story - which I was surprised to learn is adapted from a stage play by original writer Rita Kalnajeis - unfolds in episodes that allow Murphy and Kalnajeis to be sparing in the way they dish out information, not revealing everything about Milla and her mum Anna (Essie Davis) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn) all at once. This is a film about love, but also about control. Moses might be the most obvious sufferer of addiction here, but Anna is taking meds prescribed by her husband as well and other addictions are less obvious than others. Meanwhile, the family members' are struggling not just to control what happens to Milla but also their own desires - not all of which are attainable - all of which causes them to dance around each other in unpredictable ways. Some might find it frustrating that we are never given chapter and verse about Milla's illness or other elements of the family life, but the decision allows more space for the family's emotions to come to the fore instead - and considering the serious subject matter, there's also plenty of dark humour on offer.

Murphy allows Milla's personal story to unfold as we see the world through her eyes, helped by, sometimes caustic, intertitles - she might be dying but she's also, paradoxically, finding her way in the world and working out what she wants, even if time is short. Her relationship with Moses also evolves in unexpected directions, with the age gap between the two - he is supposed to be in his early 20s - handled with sensitivity. In addition to its absorbing story, the film is shot in a beautiful and beguiling way by cinematographer Andrew Commis, cleverly using natural light and shade or brilliant neons at a party to add a moments of sudden beauty or calm, allowing us to see the world as Milla sees it for a moment. For a film about death - and you will need several tissues - it also has a strong sense of life and optimism.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2020
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Babyteeth packshot
Comedy, sees a family whose seriously ill daughter falls for a drug dealer discover that it might not be such a terrible thing after all.

Director: Shannon Murphy

Writer: Based on the play by Rita Kalnejais

Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Andrea Demetriades, Emily Barclay, Charles Grounds, Justin Smith, Arka Das, Priscilla Doueihy, Georgina Symes, Zack Grech, Eugene Gilfedder, Quentin Yung, Jack Yabsley

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Australia


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