STARRING: ELIZA SCANLEN; ESSIE DAVIS; BEN MENDELSOHN; TOBY WALLACE
DIRECTED BY: SHANNON MURPHY
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Babyteeth is the most unlikely 4 star movie of 2020. I don’t prejudge a movie going in and when you find a hidden gem, it’s a fantastic reminder of the impact that movies can have. This is a story about a family, a 16-year-old teenager with cancer, a love between an unlikely pair, and all of it left me in a puddle of emotions. Director Shannon Murphy has made an amazing statement with her first feature and it’s all because nothing about Babyteeth is glossy, in fact, it’s incredibly messy, because life is a mess, especially when the moment can be this fragile. With a collection of great performances and outstanding direction, Babyteeth is the most emotional and powerful coming of age film this year.
What struck me about Babyteeth was the perfect assembly of this family, in all of their beautiful, dysfunctional glory. Anna (Essie Davis) is the matriarch, a fantastic piano player, with chronic anxiety. She is also the provider of care for Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a high school kid, an avid violin player, living her life in minutes, instead of years. Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is the professional of the family, a psychologist, using his script writing capabilities to the fullest and someone that thinks behind his eyes more than expressing his judgements of others. The hovering cloud and cause of everyone’s stress is Milla’s condition, terminally ill with cancer, causing a bright spirit to struggle everyday. Arriving out of left field is Milla’s attraction to a drug dealer and addict named Moses (Toby Wallace), a 20-year-old with cheap tattoos on his face, and a wild side that catches Milla’s eye. This is a first love, but mom and dad don’t know how to handle the situation. How does one go about allowing a dangerous connection into their babies life, especially when it brings such happiness at a time like this?
The difficult side of Babyteeth is that it’s a complex story to navigate. That’s because, similar to real life, there’s a lot going on. And yet, director Murphy and the screenplay by Rita Kalnejais know exactly where they’re taking us. The setting is Australia, but honestly this could be set in any place, because the story is universal. Murphy sets up specific scenes with bright colored text stating, “Ann keeps her appointment” or “A love story”, which often sets the narrative tone. It is the arrival of Moses that becomes the off-putting catalyst. He’s a mixture of Shia LaBeouf’s character in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and Vanilla Ice, which may be why his character arc works well. He has problems. He breaks into Milla’s house to steal drugs, for christ sake. We don’t even know if he could truly love her, but Murphy slows the story down, never demonizing him, which allows the character to have genuine, human moments. And that statement goes for every character. Mendelsohn’s work is reserved and peeling away the layers in every scene of a broken father, desperate to find a reason to live. It is Essie Davis’ performance as Milla’s mother that is the true highlight of Babyteeth. Her work is incredibly deep, a mother that desperately wants to find a balance between her daughters health and happiness. Multiple dramatic scenes reveal a phenomenal presence in Davis, a performance I would deem worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Quite possibly the highest praise I could give for Babyteeth is that it never follows the path of most coming-of-age stories. Similar to Lady Bird, Babyteeth never feels inauthentic. It is Eliza Scanlan’s work that is the narrative center and all the other characters circle around her. On top of the strong work from the cast, Shannon Murphy has an incredible confidence about her, with gorgeous neon lighting in scenes, a phenomenal score, and the patience to let these characters dance in a room as if nobody was watching. The emotional stuff is inevitable and it still hit me like a ton of bricks. That’s the true measure of a great movie. It feels so real, so raw, and Babyteeth will sit with me for a long time.
Written by: Leo Brady