Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis and Toby Wallace
Directed by Shannon Murphy
Written by Rita Kalnejais
After the rise of A24 in recent years, and their clear success with beautifully shot coming-of-age stories that follow the lives of small town, but interesting characters, ‘Babyteeth’ takes note of such a formula and re-interprets it as something entirely different. Following the story of a young girl in the throes of chemotherapy, her fascination with a local, small-time drug dealer causes her parents to soon worry about how she’s spending her potential last days.
Led by recent star Eliza Scanlen, who’s found success in the last few years from the role of Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of ‘Little Women,’ as well as 2018’s ‘Sharp Objects’ mini-series – a thrilling drama that investigates the murders of two young girls. Despite only appearing in a few feature films, Scanlen fulfills the starring role of Milla effortlessly, and her portrayal of a young person plagued by uncertainty about her own future is nothing short of compelling. Her actions are at once both confident and full of doubt, subtly demonstrating to the viewer her desperation for some sort of certainty within her life – a certainty that no one around her can provide. This sort of characteristic is perhaps best personified in the drug dealer that she befriends – Moses. The unpredictability of his nature fulfills the need for both rebellion and care that Milla seeks from her life at that time, and once again Toby Wallace’s performance as such a chaotic character is brilliant, working excellently in line with the prescribed drug-fuelled world that surrounds Milla. Their relationship is never explicitly laid out to the viewer, and as a result, you’re drawn further into the story, and further into the experiences of these two young people.
Thematically, the film covers a wide range of topics, from drug abuse, physical and mental health and the importance of clear relationships within a family. But once again, ‘Babyteeth’ never lays out these issues in easily-digestible chunks for the viewer. Like the title connotes, the characters can only work their way through these issues a small amount at a time, and the way in which these things are broken down are all too often not how it may first appear. The narrative elements of the story rely almost entirely on the actions of the characters, and their ever-changing moods and perceptions of one another cause the film to always have something interesting to welcome into the story. In fact, the complete lack of hospital visits or therapy sessions that so often fill out films with a similar illness-based origin allows the story to explore the overall experience of a loved one battling cancer, rather than the direct side-effects of the disease on a certain character. For this reason, the film never feels like its bound to the storyline that a short description of the narrative would provide, and the characters often stray into territory that feels like a distraction from the overall arc of the film, but works completely naturally when looking into the relationship of two young people.
For a debut feature film, ‘Babyteeth’ shows that director Shannon Murphy is an exciting new voice in the world of film, and her approach to a subject is often not as simple as it may first appear. A clear focus on the characters that inhabit the world of her films, as well as the way in which each relationship is presented shows us that Murphy has a genuine interest in how the story is interpreted by the audience.