Director: Shannon Murphy
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Ah, young love. Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair defined more by how awkward the whole thing is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.
Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.
Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.
Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells. However, Moses isn’t really given a voice besides the jovial gimmick he fronts his own turmoil with, and the efforts to remain sanguine for Milla’s sake mean important conflicts such as privilege and expectations are left unchallenged.
As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance which, remarkably for a film about terminal illness, only has one very fleeting hospital scene.
It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.