Living in Canberra Australia, with the pandemic as under control as pretty much anywhere in the world, a while back I returned to the cinema for the first time. I was fully intending to record an episode of Driving Home From the Cinema Reviews on this one. Instead, the approach to familiar material inspired me to write a review to a new release for the first time in forever. In the paragraph below starting ‘the result of all this’ I go into detail that may approach spoiler territory. But I don’t think in a way that will affect the experience for anyone. Just a heads up if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.
Sketching out the plot of Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth (2019) – terminally ill teen falls in with slightly older drug dealer much to the chagrin of her parents – calls to mind certain expectations. But this film is barely concerned with the narrative beats one would expect, the nature of the illness, or for most of the run-time, even the emotions generated by it all. Rather it is at its best when working at the level of change and emotion. It moves in tones and notes that range from the subtle to the euphoric. Dance, connection, unexpected presences in one’s life (that are also unwanted by others) that challenge and delight. At times this is all driven by the use of music as it’s used to fill the aural space, simultaneously disorienting and focusing. The chance meeting of the ill Milla and Moses at a train station leads to a deep, doomed connection. The performances from Eliza Scanlen as Milla and Toby Wallace as Moses are strikingly unaffected. Wallace in particular brings a distinctly ragamuffiny energy and charm to a role that could feel rote in a lesser film. Credit for this belongs equally to the inquisitive scripting of his character and the performance. Similarly the relationship between the two of them is nicely complex for a teen focussed film, having its ups and downs, but not those we would expect – driven by Moses’ erraticism and desire for drugs to sell; and Milla’s illness, yearning and self-sufficiency.
The result of all this is that when Murphy does choose to engage with the stark emotions involved in the illness and death of a teenager it crushes. The filmmakers have somehow crafted it all without us noticing and all of a sudden the full force of what this means is nakedly, starkly real. This is done in a couple of scenes. First, we find out from Moses that Milla is dead. The scene then splits in two and Murphy cuts between them with the characters are paired up in the opposite way to what one would expect – again the film subverting the norm of these kinds of experiences. It is Milla’s father who rushes to her bed and lies with her body, overcome with grief. Then in the other strand of the scnee, Moses is paired off with Milla’s mum Anna (an amazing Essie Davis), the unapproving adversary. The realisation here for Anna is twofold – that Moses has been the most important person in her daughter’s final weeks and that she is gone. Murphy chooses not to end the film there. The next scene, that closes the film, takes place on a beach. Most of the characters from the film are there. And during that scene, coming when it was apparent to them all that Milla would soon die, she simply, gently asks her dad to look after Moses. The reaction from Ben Mendelsohn is utterly heartbreaking. It is this request that has brought into stark clarity for him what the near future holds for him and his daughter. This final piece of planning, the most important request she can fathom. As Mendelsohn has grown into his fame and found adulation worldwide, he has also grown into somewhat of a meme, with the emphasis on the concept of ‘full Mendo’ being ubiquitous. But it is here, in a piece of acting as far from ‘full Mendo’ as you can imagine, that he delivers his best work ever. The reaction is so well done that it cracked something deep inside me as a viewer. The ache of this father. They symbolic weight of his daughter’s final request.
Verdict: With its interesting, non-narrative approach to familiar material, Babyteeth surprises without feeling like that is what it is aiming for. The approach to death and emotion feels radical, simply because it is thoughtful and considered. And the closing sequences made me feel so so much, so deeply, in the way that only the most affecting of film can. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter