Babyteeth is the first feature from longtime television and short film director Shannon Murphy. The quiet film focuses on ordinary characters going through a tough situation, with wobbling skill.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women) first meets Moses (Toby Wallace) on a train platform. The teenage girl is in her school uniform when the tattooed wanderer notices her golden hair. Milla’s hair becomes a bit of a signal for her state of well being throughout the film, but more on that in a bit. For now, there is just Milla and Moses.
She brings Moses back to her house to the alarm of her mom (Essie Davis, The Babadook) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn). While they are shocked by the age difference, there is also an unnatural calmness in their reaction to Milla’s new friend. We soon learn that Milla is quite sick. Sick to the point where you treat every day like a gift.
Babyteeth is not a film which relies on constructed plot or conflict to propel it forward. And while the core four characters are each interesting in their own ways, we never truly get close to them. Rather, it is a film which allows us to see what happens when there is an alleviation of conflict and of ego. Milla’s mom and dad are fairly accepting of her crush on Moses, even though they can see him much clearer than Milla can. Moses is sympathetic to a degree, but he is also not the kind of young many protective parents would typically welcome into their home. But instead Milla’s parents accept that he makes their daughter happy, and perhaps acknowledge on some level that they do not have to worry about this bad egg destroying her future if she has no future to destroy.
The method of storytelling in Babyteeth is just as gentle as the parenting on screen. Occasional intertitles flash to telegraph a major occurrence in the next chapter of the film, but they are not hard and fast constraints. The film itself is also quite quiet and uses dialogue sparingly. We are given plenty of time to observe the characters when they are alone or lost in their thoughts. We get to know their relationships, even though they remain largely strangers to us.
Scanlen is incredible as Milla. While her character is going through unimaginable trials with her disease, she still acts like a teenager. She gets a crush on a boy who is from the other side of the track. She avoids school. And she loses herself in music when she dances. Beyond that, we are never allowed to get close to Milla, but Scanlen plays her with the confidence of a girl who knows precisely who she is. As Milla is going through her measured version of teenage rebellion, she tries on different wigs to see how those versions of herself would look. But despite the rapid sways between images and situations, Milla is always Milla.
Another performance that deserves special mention is Davis. She is often shown alone in her beautiful house, lost in her thoughts, though we are never inclined to pity her. Her marriage is strained and her daughter’s health is getting worse, but she manages to seem reflective and not pathetic. It is the subtly balanced performances which save Babyteeth from ever tipping into judgement of its characters.
Babyteeth avoids the nauseating and twee history of dying teenager cinematic history from A Walk to Remember and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Milla is neither a victim nor a canvas for her family and Moses to project their feelings of inadequacy upon. She is not even necessarily complicated. She is a young woman, going through life without forgetting to live it.