The vibrant Australian piece Babyteeth is an alarmingly strong drama about the sometimes strange array of people pulled into our orbit when we are at our most desperate and fractured. Written by Rita Kalnejais (adapting her own play) and directed by Shannon Murphy (her first feature after helming many great episodes of “Killing Eve” in Season 3), this intimate work centers on the family of 16-year-old Milla (rising phenom Eliza Scanlen, Little Women, HBO’s “Sharp Objects”) as she battles a cancer diagnosis. He father (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel, Rogue One) and mother (Essie Davis, The Babadook) are at a loss as to how to cope with her distress and end up getting too lost in their own issues as individuals and a couple to notice when Milla begins to act out.
One day going to school on the train, Milla meets 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace), a drug dealer and all-around free spirit to whom she is instantly attracted. Moses is a genuinely magnetic and appealing person, but he’s also clearly not the kind of person (or age) that Milla’s parents want her hanging out with. But they are also desperate to not stand in the way of anything that brings their daughter happiness in what might be her final days, so they attempt to embrace Moses in her life and in their home, since he does genuinely seem to care about Milla.
During the course of Babyteeth, we’re allowed glimpses into the lives of each character, each one with a unique set of troubles. Mom may be addicted to prescription drugs that psychiatrist dad is prescribing. Dad is being weirdly attentive to the new neighbor, a single woman named Toby (Emily Barclay), who also happens to be very pregnant. Over the course of the film, honesty seems to be more and more the order of the day. The barriers and facades fall down, and what replaces them is each character coming to grips with what they really are or what they’ll never become. The film relishes in the chaos, and in those moments where you expect family to pull their daughter in tighter and away from outside influences, they do her the courtesy of loosening their grip and giving her the kind of freedom she wouldn’t have otherwise experienced until she was much older.
Babyteeth doesn’t spare us raw and unfiltered emotions, but it isn’t trying to burden us with sadness or other heaviness just to be seen as a serious drama. The film wants us to think, but it’s also a great deal of fun, and witnessing Milla come into her own, finding the glory in her life, feels radical and transformative. Her first, and likely only, love gives her the ability to be set free. It’s a beautiful and lyrical, without being precious about it or being afraid of getting loud and messy at times.
The film is now available on VOD and through most streaming services.
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