A glance at Babyteeth’s brief synopsis makes it seem like this shattering Australian tragicomedy could be an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. But despite the shared DNA of a gravely ill teen and her bad boy love interest, this feature debut from TV director Shannon Murphy grows into something entirely unlike those treacly romances. Babyteeth is authentic and unexpected, thanks to both Murphy’s confident style and the nuanced script from Rita Kalnejais, both of whom trust their audiences far more than a Sparks film would ever dare.
After moviegoers saw her as literature’s most famous sick teen — Beth in 2019’s Little Women — Eliza Scanlen again plays an ailing adolescent here, but Milla is nothing like the beloved March waif. The 15-year-old meets Moses (Toby Wallace) when he jumps ahead of her on a train platform, and whether it’s his face tattoos, rattail, or the T-shirt he gamely sacrifices when Milla gets a nosebleed, she is quickly smitten by the 23-year-old’s charms. She brings him home to meet her parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), who are less impressed. They see a drug dealer and troublemaker, but they also soon see that Moses is the only thing that has brought joy to their daughter as she battles cancer. They reluctantly bring Moses into the fold, sacrificing what they thought was important in surprising ways so Milla can be happy.
Babyteeth never lets us get comfortable with our initial impressions of its characters, with each scene offering a new facet of people we thought we had figured out. Whether it’s the devoted father and psychiatrist Henry or the would-be deadbeat Moses, none of Kalnejais’s characters can be boiled down to a single, one-dimensional descriptor. With finely shaded performances from each of the four actors to match the script, they feel like real people, which makes their pain and pleasure all the more palpable. Their actions feel believable, even when their choices are bad (or not what we think we’d do in their situation), while the handheld cinematography from Andy Commis brings a sense of both immediacy and intimacy to the lives of Milla, her parents, and Moses.
With seemingly mundane chapter titles and the occasional direct-to-camera glance from its heroine, Babyteeth boasts a sly wit amidst a family’s pain. There’s a playfulness to the proceedings that you don’t expect with a film about a terminally ill teen. It’s just weird enough, while avoiding the cliches of both quirky festival films and modern melodramas, navigating its own new path. Murphy’s direction and Kalnejais’s script both give the audience a lot of credit; abrupt edits transition from scene to scene, intentionally leaving out details and trusting us to keep up with where it is going and who we’re traveling with. And we’re on board for most of its running time — but at almost two hours, Babyteeth droops a bit in the middle, as Milla and Moses laze about her family’s Sydney home. There are moments of sweetness to savor, but it ambles forward slowly in these scenes.
However, as the film nears its end, Murphy brings us back, dealing repeated blows to both the heart and gut in a pair of final scenes. You might think you’re above the manufactured sadness of Sparks films and their knockoffs, but there’s something so real here that it’s impossible to escape Babyteeth unscathed. It all works because of its balance of darkness and light, which Murphy deftly moves between with a grace that belies her status as a first-time filmmaker. Anyone who has seen Davis in 2014’s The Babadook or Mendelsohn in, well, anything, already know that they’re actors to watch, but Babyteeth establishes Scanlan, Wallace, and especially Murphy as talents to keep your eye on.
“Babyteeth” is out Friday on demand.