Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Movie Review: Babyteeth

Babyteeth *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Shannon Murphy.
Written by: Rita Kalnejais.
Starring: Eliza Scanlen (Milla), Toby Wallace (Moses), Essie Davis (Anna), Ben Mendelsohn (Henry), Michelle Lotters (Scarlett), Sora Wakaki (Maria), Renee Billing (Lisa), Zack Grech (Isaac), Georgina Symes (Polly), Emily Barclay (Toby), Eugene Gilfedder (Gidon), Edward Lau (Tin Wah), Charles Grounds (Dean), Andrea Demetriades (Jenny), Jaga Yap (Dom), Priscilla Doueihy (Kathy), Arka Das (Shaun).   

Babyteeth is a drama about a teenager dying of cancer – and it goes over some well-trodden ground. You may think of Love Story (1970) and its many imitators that seemingly hit theatres every year, and you’d be right to do so, because the film – about this teenage girl finding love for the first time, even as she is dying, is similar in outline to many of those other films. But it’s a film written, directed and performed with such sensitivity, such attention to details of the four individuals at its core, that the film works even as it doesn’t really contain any surprises. It takes talent to do something that has been done this many times before, and make it feel authentic – but Babyteeth pulls it off.
The girl in question this time is Milla, played by the talented Eliza Scanlen, who has been excellent in supporting roles in films like Little Women, and the miniseries Sharp Objects, this time filling a lead with ease. This isn’t her first bout with cancer – but it may well be her last. She is a pariah at school – teenagers don’t really know how to deal with a dying classmate, so they basically ignore her. Her parents – Henry and Anna (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) are loving and supporting – but also don’t quite know what to do. Anna is abusing pills, and Henry is basically ignoring it, and going about his work. They aren’t dealing with this very well – but what would dealing with this well even look like?
And then Moses (Toby Wallace) enters their lives. He isn’t the type of guy any parent would want their teenage daughter to fall for – he’s a few years older, doesn’t come from a good background, has a criminal history, and looks like he has already lived a rough life. Yet, when he meets Milla on a train platform, they instantly connect. They fall for each other – and fall hard.
You may think you know where the story is going, and you’re most likely correct, but the film does avoid some of the more painful clichés of the genre. Henry and Anna don’t much like Moses – but they don’t forbid her from seeing him either. They look at him with unease, but in the end, what really can he do to her – she is already dying.
The film is based on a stage play – but the only real way you notice that is that it is clear that the four main characters are well thought out, deep and complex – and no one else is. This was likely a four-hander on stage, and perhaps it worked better that way. The four main actors are the real reason to see the movie – because they are all playing flawed characters, struggling with what comes next, and not sure where to go from there. It’s nice to see Mendelsohn in this type of role – Hollywood has basically decided he is a villain, and even though he does those roles really well, it’s nice to see him dig into something with depth and sensitivity. Davis, so good in The Babadook, is excellent here as well – another mother not sure of what to do. Wallace, an actor unfamiliar to me, has natural screen presence and charisma – and is able to communicate his depth of feeling for Milla, even as he constantly screws up. And Scanlen proves she is one of the best young actresses around.
I do wish that the film had a touch more originality – a little bit more going on than it does, because it is such well-trodden ground. But first time director Shannon Murphy does get excellent performances from everyone, and so even if you know where it’s going, Babyteeth still works amazingly well.

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