As with many screeners, I don’t research the film too deeply beforehand. I’ve (maybe) watched the trailer but haven’t dug for details or scrolled through the director’s back catalogue. I like a surprise, Babyteeth definitely surprised me.
On the surface, Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) is a normal teenage girl, her life seemingly spun upside down when she meets punk rocker Moses (Toby Wallace) on her way to school one morning. But Milla’s life was already in a tailspin as we learn she’s seriously ill, in remission when we first meet her
That’s where the surprise came for me, that something so confident, strong, and beautiful is the product of the first forays into film for these three. Kalenjais splits the story into chapters, each titled with something witty or biting, superimposed onto the opening shot in the film’s pastel colours. Her characters are bubbling with emotion, it spills out of them as they argue, shout and cry. The scripting is so real; the final moments between Moses and Anna made my chest ache, they were so raw. Murphy, too, has a keen eye for moving the characters through the scenery with the camera circling around them, allowing the audience to fully drink in the room. The family’s living room, for example, is a wide, open-plan space where the foursome come to blows several times, either as a whole or in different pairs.
Set in a space so large you’d expect them to be charging across to confront each other, but Murphy lets the scene play out on opposite walls, the dialogue shouted instead; this alone feels so much more real than if they were to get right up into the others’ faces. Throughout Babyteeth there’s a consistent feeling of reality, making the ending that more painful. As for casting, I don’t think they could’ve done better. Ben Mendelsohn, known in Hollywood for roles in Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises and Captain Marvel, is a solid choice. While maybe known for playing ‘the bad guy’, in this he’s softer but still has an edge. As his wife’s psychiatrist, he has a level of control over Anna, but despite this he still feels trapped.
Anna, played by True History of the Kelly Gang‘s Essie Davis, is the somewhat typical overly worried mother, and quite rightly so; at first we think she’s too much, and then we realise why. Enter Wallace as Moses and Davis starts to spin out uncontrollably, as he makes himself at home in their lives, with his apparent carefree, nothing-can-touch-me attitude, exactly what attracts Milla to him. His tough exterior starts to crack and chip away as he gets to know her and her situation, exposing a scared little boy underneath, portrayed with heart and courage by Wallace.
And, finally, Scanlen. She broke my heart in Little Women, impressed me in her role in Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and has blown me away in Babyteeth. Scanlen’s Milla is charming, funny, and cutting, brutally honest, and yet quietly shy. We see her hit her stride midway through, tingling with energy as she dons her wig, shoplifts, dances, and parties with Moses, effervescent with energy. But, from the start, she knows she has a secret, hinted at within the first few minutes as she flicks her eyes down the centre of the camera and then looks away.
Watch closely for this and for other similar moments throughout, as it took me until the next day to realise why those seconds hit me so hard; Milla knows she’s sick again, which is why she suddenly grabs life with both fists. Scanlen is a powerhouse in this and is destined for big things. Her performance alone with make you want to be more ‘Milla’. Full of humour, humanity, and spirit, this was bound to be my kind of film; a somewhat simple story played out beautifully by the cast, touching on real, relatable themes. I adored Babyteeth and I hope you will, too.