It has been a hard year for cinema, with any movie daring to mount a theatrical release facing unexpected restrictions, venue closures, and even just a market plain spooked about risking their health in a dark theatre. Pity, then, poor Babyteeth. The feature debut of director Shannon Murphy, it launched last year with an acclaimed and award-winning turn at the Venice Film Festival, and gained high praise from as wide an array of outlets as Vanity Fair, Variety, and Rolling Stone. It received its theatrical release in Australia this July, half-hamstrung by COVID-19 shutdowns. It made a quick route to home video while it was still screening in some cinemas. This is all a great pity, because Babyteeth deserves the biggest platform it can get. It is arguably the strongest Australian feature since Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a chronically ill teenager. While she struggles to maintain her health, her parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) struggle to hold their family together in the face of growing stress and heartbreak. When Milla brings home 23-year-old drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace) for dinner, it sparks off change – both good and bad – for all four of them.
Babyteeth is simply a remarkable film. It is funny when it wants to be, and dramatic when it needs to be. It splits its focus across several characters; Milla is the story’s anchor, but is not its sole focus. It embeds character into every moment of its narrative. What is particularly impressive is that each of the four leads play deeply flawed characters. Milla rebels against both her parents and her illness – sometimes at a serious risk to her health. Anna is living in a haze of prescription drugs in an attempt to cope. Henry is struggling – and failing – to hold his marriage together. Moses is… Moses is Moses, a pitch-perfect small-time drug dealer and addict recognisable to any Australian who has travelled on public transport at night. Despite these flaws, each character simultaneously blossoms with heart and warmth. Milla is palpably defiant and brave. Anna and Henry positively swell with love and affection for their daughter and each other.
Moses is the greatest surprise. The initial reaction to encountering him is practicallty to flinch: he is imposing, somewhat threatening, and visibly anti-social. Once invited into Milla’s home, however, he begins to shed layer after layer and reveals a genuinely loving and wounded young man. He is terrible at expressing it, and remains an addict with everything that usually entails, yet ultimately forms an odd sort of heart to the film. Toby Wallace is absolutely fantastic in the role, delivering something both rivetting and oftentimes painful. It is one of the strongest film performances I have seen this year. His co-stars are almost as good. Mendelsohn, Davis, and Scanlen feel deeply real and profoundly familiar; not so much characters as real people transported to the screen.
The film’s chapter-based structure irritates at first, but leads to some enjoyable pay-offs as the story progresses. The insights into life as a chronically ill teenager are raw; anyone with lived experience of this sort of thing may find parts of the film too difficult to revisit. For the rest of us it is a vividly powerful experience.
This is an absolutely world-class drama: immensely effective, surprisingly funny and warm, and at the same time as capable of devastating its audience as charming the pants off it.