A gentle finger traces a stranger’s scar. A sandwich passed from one mouth to a lover’s. A reticent hand on a pregnant belly. A home haircut, where a sweaty palm brushes swiftly through a freshly shorn scalp. These are some of the moments of intense intimacy that spill forth in Babyteeth, and push the audience to breathless awe. Carefully captured, these simple gestures speak volumes about desire and the deeply human need to connect, to touch.
Babyteeth is an astonishing feature film debut by screenwriter Rita Kalnejais and director Shannon Murphy. Little Women’s Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a tender teen girl who’s battling cancer. But this is not the story of her illness, it is one of her liveliness. Kalnejais scripts scenes where Milla plays music, dances with abandon, parties like there’s no tomorrow, and falls hard for a boy who she knows will break her heart. His name is Moses (Toby Wallace), and he comes on like a whirlwind, abrupt, bombastic, yet exciting. Within moments of meeting on a train platform, the two are in an embrace, clumsy and violent, but thrilling. Milla soon learns that Moses is 23, homeless, hooked on hard drugs, and dealing to scrape by. He’s precisely the kind of boy parents hope their daughters won’t bring home, and by scene four of this daring drama, that’s exactly what Milla does.
Australian screen legends Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis co-star as Milla’s parents, Henry and Anna. He is an even-tempered psychologist; she is an emotional pianist. Together they collide in a frenzy of limbs, secret smiles, and buried resentments. Milla’s illness is a growing wedge between them, because Henry refuses to give into the agony of it all, while Anna can barely do anything else. They want their daughter to be happy and healthy, but failing the latter—should they at least give her the former? Within 20 minutes, Babyteeth has already laid all this out and introduced the idea that the family will take in a reckless “junkie” because their daughter loves him.
The first half of Babyteeth feels like an exhilarating sprint through a forest. The tragedy of Milla’s diagnosis snags at us like pesky tree branches or snatches of jagger bushes. But the sheer rush of scenes hits like the bracing breeze on a hot day. Our hearts thump in the excitement of it all as a meet-cute spins to parental conflict to hard truths at a relentless pace. In her first feature-length film, Murphy shows an impeccable mastery of pacing and atmosphere, leaning into this frenzied feel to gives audiences the rush of first love in which Milla is caught up. But the thing about crushes, they can be crushing.
Milla, Moses, and her parents are all essentially running as fast as they can away from the realities they can’t bare to face. For Milla, this means throwing herself at Moses, through sketchy errands and a trippy house party. For Moses, it means playing the hero, but vanishing when things get too real. Meanwhile, Hank’s attentions turn to a popsicle-loving pregnant girl across the road, and Anna seeks self-annihilation as absolution for all the ways she fears she’s failed her child. In the second act, the energy and their efforts all collapse. The film becomes a crawl, with characters achingly maneuvering in impossible scenarios where there seems to be no right or easy answer.
Kalnejais’s script offers characters who are a snarl of charms and flaws, a brilliantly humane portrait. Murphy’s direction trusts in her cast, letting the camera linger on their faces, which throb with emotion even when stock-still. And this cast. They are beyond phenomenal.
Forget the meek Beth March of Little Women. Scanlen is electrifying as a girl on the brink of womanhood and death. She’s a simmering kettle of lust and heartache, occasionally exploding with teen angst and righteous wrath. But when Mila is with Moses, Scanlen is giggly, a girl in love who gets to be only that—and not the sick kid—for just a moment. Wallace is her perfect scene partner, playing Moses like a Lost Boy with Big Dick Energy. He is chaotic and kind, offering the shirt off his back as a handkerchief—then begging for cash. His crooked grin is captivating, even as it promises trouble. But when this playful veneer cracks, so too does our heart for him and for the girl he’s sure to disappoint.
Finally, there’s Davis and Mendelsohn. She’s awed audiences before as the sultry detective of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the harried and horrifying mom of The Babadook. Here, Davis offers a different portrait of motherhood-on-the-edge. Ann is radiant with smiles and polite gestures. But beneath her thin grin, the cracks of this chipper facade are growing, threatening to tear her apart. As for Mendelsohn, he shrugs off the sinister swagger and world-weariness that’s become a big part of his casting niche. With a tidy mustache, a bit of paunch, and soft eyes, Mendelsohn is deeply dad, caring, concerned, and fearful for his fragile little girl. He and Davis share a ferocious chemistry, which is set up in a messy, sad, and yet undeniably hot sex scene. From there, they are partners in a dance that spins from warm to vicious and back again. Finally, comes the climax, where they offer performances that go in radically different directions, yet play perfectly, poignantly together.
All in all, Babyteeth is a savage wonder. Kalnejais races through the plot points we’d expect from such a setup, then taunts us with what might come after. It’s a world without a roadmap, yet Murphy guides us with a confident hand on a scenic route of love and pain. Their cast jumps on board, delivering ruthlessly raw emotions and a radiant vulnerability that grabs audiences by the jugular and won’t let go. Through all this, Babyteeth drags us into the world of Milla, which is rich in joys, agony, insight, and bloody empathy. In the end, the film surges into a rallying cry, heralding the gnarly glory of all of the above.
Babyteeth comes to theaters and On Demand on June 19
Header Image Source: Entertainment One