FILM REVIEW – BABYTEETH. With Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis. Written by Rita Kalnejais. Directed by Shannon Murphy. Unrated, but contains profanity, drug use and sexual situations. 118 minutes.
Shine on, Aussie diamond
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” began Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” and with it an entire genre of shameless tear-jerkers in which the slow deaths of beautiful young women teach our callow male protagonists important lessons about life. In films such as “Sweet November” and “A Walk to Remember” grieving becomes a character-building growth exercise for our hearty heroes, with the doomed gals granted about as much depth as a beloved pet that gets hit by a car. The grossest of them all was 2015’s Sundance sensation “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” in which the titular cancer patient spent her final breaths trying to get the film’s asshole protagonist into college. Movies like this mean always having to say you’re sorry.
What a surprise then to find BABYTEETH, a loose-limbed and sharp-edged Australian drama in which the sick girl is the main character for a change. In any sane world this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a novelty as it is, but centering the female protagonist instead of the guy whose life she’s enriching by dying makes a very old story feel (almost) new. Adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her own stage play and capably helmed by “Killing Eve” director Shannon Murphy, it’s got the kind of pastel color palette and twee title cards that veer perilously close to the Fox Searchlight-y “(500) Days of Juno” aesthetic, but remember the Aussie brand of whimsy has always been a lot spikier than its American counterpart. This is a much tougher movie than you’d guess from its slick surfaces.
Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a sickly sixteen-year-old outcast who one day finds herself smitten after a train platform meet-cute with Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old junkie with jailhouse tattoos who uses poodle shears to cut his own hair. He’s a shambles of a fella to whom Milla takes an instant, ornery liking––much to the consternation of her well-off, repressed parents, played by the perpetually-rumpled Ben Mendelsohn and “Babadook” mother-of-the-year, Essie Davis.
Mom’s a pill-addicted classical pianist who hasn’t played a note since her daughter fell ill, and Dad’s a psychiatrist who’s lately become a bit freer than he should be with his prescription pad. Their scenes together crackle with the energy you’d expect from a couple of old pros, these two caregivers understanding full well that their daughter’s first love is most likely going to be her last. But boy, she didn’t pick an easy one, did she?
Moses can be boyishly charming yet with an addict’s cunning. He isn’t only hanging around with Milla so he can help himself to her pain meds, but that’s certainly a selling point. There’s an unspoken arrangement to their relationship: she clearly loves him more than he loves her back, but he cares about her enough to try and make things comfortable for what little time they have left together. “Babyteeth”––which takes its cloying title from a too-literary conceit in which has Milla has not lost all hers yet––is a movie about finding accommodations and attempting to make the best of things. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” Davis sighs at one development. It’s also the best they could do in a sad situation.
The movie is erratically paced, prone to the repetition inherent in stories about addicts and the inevitably familiar cancer movie beats. But Scanlen holds it all together with a great watchfulness and understanding. I suppose she’s an old hand at this now after playing Beth in last year’s luminous “Little Women,” and I would like to see her in something where she makes it all the way to the end credits. It’s important that in “Babyteeth” she’s not playing an abstraction or an idea, nor the mere vehicle for a male character’s redemption. Milla’s a fully-rounded, mulishly stubborn person who has to leave us too soon. Turns out there’s a lot you can say about a sixteen-year-old girl who died.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality