Small-time drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace) literally barges his way into Milla’s life while she is standing on the platform awaiting her train home from school. In the following moments, the jittery off-his-face-on-pharmacuticals nervous energy of the scruff-bag almost guarantees he won’t be going anywhere soon. He “saves her life” by stemming a sudden nosebleed with the shirt off his back. She offers to give him fifty bucks if he’ll do something for her, and as Moses hacks off her long hair with dog clippers, Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is smitten.
Meanwhile, across town (still in Sydney), therapist Henry Finlay (Ben Mendelsohn) is listening to Anna (Essie Davis) who is laying on an ottoman in the middle of the floor while he devours a sandwich. Only when they begin to awkwardly orchestrate sex on Henry’s desk do we realise that they are husband and wife and Milla is their daughter. Oh yes, and Milla has – although the word is never uttered once during the film’s 118-minute duration – a form of cancer.
Surrounding the Finlays – and Moses – are a cast of memorable and wonderful characters. There’s heavily pregnant Toby (Emily Barclay) who has recently moved into the house across the street, Latvian music teacher Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder) – he teaches Milla violin and was once Anna’s musical touring partner, Tin Wah (Edward Lau) – an accidental truant who’s a musical prodigy in the making, and Zachy (Zack Grech) Moses’ little brother. Each flesh out the story in their own memorable way but the film belongs to the four leads: Scanlen, Wallace, Davis and Mendelsohn.
To reveal more about the plot would spoil but suffice to say Shannon Murphy’s directorial debut feature is a little beauty. Based on Rita Kalnejais’ 2012 play – she adapts her own work for the screen – it thankfully has kept all the descriptors from the stage version. The film is chopped up into vignettes, each given a title which don’t always work, often only serving as a distraction, however, here are edited together flawlessly. They even help create a laugh before any action unfolds.
Murphy’s direction is subtle and natural – nothing feels forced. Light floods every frame even during night-time sequences, this is not a film about death despite its looming scythe but a celebration of life, first love and family achieved in such a beautiful way. Babyteeth is a bittersweet comedy and utterly unique. It’s not quite a coming-of-age story nor is it one of those heinous last-chance-at-love stories where the dying girl lies pale and clammy in her bed, or is accompanied by an oxygen tank in every scene. There is hope, joy and teen angst everywhere, and yes, the sobering fact that Milla may die is never far from the audience’s minds but her illness doesn’t define her.
Eliza Scanlen more than proved her acting mettle in Sharp Objects (a penchant for teeth too it seems) and creates a fully-rounded character in Milla. She’s not always likeable (what teenage girl is?) but we empathise with her, and can’t help but love her. Toby Wallace is brilliant as (almost) complete loser, Moses, who’s not beyond redemption, and nowhere near boyfriend material. Yet, there’s something so sweet and tragically melancholic about him. Which leaves the ‘olds’. If you’d like to see a masterclass in acting from two Australian legends of the large and small screen, look no further than Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. They’re fabulous in most things individually but together something else entirely.
That’s one of things this film does so well, it’s not just about a diagnosis or how it effects the sick but those around them, and Davis and Mendelsohn convey so much with very little. It’s in the nuance of a sigh, a look, a nudge of affection, a kiss on the forehead, or getting exasperated at your wife’s ‘shower move’ just so she can get you naked. Let’s just say, Moses isn’t the only one self-medicating and dulling the pain, Anna hasn’t been able to play the piano at all since Milla’s news.
Music plays a huge part of this film, it’s what opens it – a string quartet hammer out a gorgeous version of “Golden Brown” while the remainder of the soundtrack – wonderfully put together by Amanda Brown – varies from electro, soul, cheesy pop to Mozart and Bach. Each piece conveys emotional heft and given that music means so much to the mother and daughter onscreen, it’s a really lovely way of exploring their relationship without unnecessary exposition.
Milla still has one of her baby teeth – hence the title – the perfect symbol for the childhood she wants to be free of and the adulthood she may never encounter. As a film, Babyteeth is a glorious joy from beginning to end; heart-aching and hilarious with an immensely talented cast who genuinely make this a special experience.