A crack of sunlight streams through a window, casting a teenage girl’s face half in darkness. The mood is reflective, the girl’s eyes full of emotions. The scene, overlaid with the title “What the Dead Said to Milla”, speaks to the tenderness of Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth: a lovely, achey coming-of-age story that bursts with rare respect for its characters while tragedy peeks in through the curtains.
As of late, the teen romance genre has been flooded with films of a separate subgenre, in which at least one protagonist is terminally ill – see: The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Five Feet Apart. Murphy’s film, which is adapted from Rita Kalnejais’ play and won accolades at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, is the latest, telling the story of Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a high-schooler undergoing cancer treatment, and Moses (Toby Wallace): a homeless young drug addict, estranged from his family.
Their backgrounds are dissimilar, and their meet-cute is unexpectedly bittersweet: at a train station, she suddenly finds herself being cradled by him on the concrete platform, as he presses his shirt to her nosebleed.
The encounter – somehow both gentle and violent – leads to an initially arms-length relationship, despite their obvious attraction. There’s an age gap, and there’s her parents: ex-concert pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), whose cold and spacious, glass-panelled Sydney home Milla brings him to. She fights against the way they stigmatise him; in a later scene, when he breaks into their house to steal prescription pills, her father calls him a drug addict. “Don’t pigeonhole him,” she bites back.
Murphy and first-time screenwriter Kalnejais both have a background in Australian theatre, and they’ve structured this shrewd, affectionate drama through playful intertitles. The film finds rousing energy in the tension between Milla’s journey into adulthood, and the potential dead-end of her illness. Her head is newly shaved after relapse and she has bouts of nausea, but she shoplifts lipstick from the chemist, unabashedly tucking it into her bra; and immerses herself in the dark room of a party, illuminated by projected fireworks.
Babyteeth holds back from being overwrought, leaning into the quips and elations of Milla’s experiences as a teenager trying to figure herself out. Alienated from private school peers who view the school formal as the pinnacle of their existence, Milla embraces her flourishing romance as a means to snatch a degree of control over her life.
In her first lead role, Scanlen (of HBO’s Sharp Objects and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women) brings a fierce maturity to Milla, and a giddiness to her infatuation with Moses. Their interactions are breezy and vibrant, and their growing affection – shown through a dreamy intimacy; a shot of barely-touching knees on a train seat, for instance – is palpable.
Refreshingly for the genre, Babyteeth focuses on Milla’s family too: dysfunctional, but doing their best to medicate their own and each other’s pain. Classical music, which scores much of the film, functions like an umbilical cord between mother and daughter: Anna’s pill-hazy state instantly dissipates when she stumbles on Milla dancing euphorically to Sudan Archives’ Come Meh Way at her violin teacher’s home.
But the insular, privileged universe in which the characters move betrays the film’s origins in the cloistered theatre world. The family’s ultimate embrace of Moses has a whiff of saviour complex; and its treatment of secondary characters – such as Henry’s flirtation with the pregnant neighbour, and Moses’ rift with his younger brother – are storylines too neatly resolved.
Despite these elisions, the film’s effect is shattering because of how squarely it hinges on Milla’s perspective. In a subgenre that often mawkishly preaches one should live a short life to its fullest, Babyteeth shows the fullest can be an ordinary day at the beach, when Milla turns the camera away from herself and onto her parents, the sea, the sky.
• Babyteeth is released on 23 July in Australia, and on 21 August in the UK.
Source: The Guardian