UNIVERSAL PICTURES (2020)
Director: Shannon Murphy
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Emily Barclay
Those Aussies are alright aren’t they? Sure, they prefer that egg-ball-chucking sport, bring in the New Year before us here in the UK and house a horrific rogues gallery of spiders but they sure do know how to get a lot of things right – especially when it comes to movies. The Babadook, Candy, Walkabout, Animal Kingdom and, of course, Crocodile Dundee are just a few of the best exports from Down Under that are well worth your time. Can we or should we be adding debutant director Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth to that list?
The film follows a terminally-ill sixteen-year-old called Milla (Scanlen) who falls in love with a hermit drug dealer (Moses, played by Wallace) leaving her parents – Henry (Mendelsohn) and Anna (Davis) – in some highly unenviable situations and forcing upon them some very tough decisions. It’s billed as a drama/tragicomedy and it’s hard to argue with those descriptions – Babyteeth is very much both but it’s also a coming-of-age story with enough deviations to set it apart from the conventional and it just happens to be very, very good. It’s affecting, engaging and bursting with humanity – there’s a raw edge to the entirety of the movie that makes it feel, at times, extremely real and, given the subject matters at hand, also very emotional and tough.
Fresh from being the best part of 2019’s Little Women (alongside Florence Pugh) Eliza Scanlen carries Babyteeth on her shoulders with aplomb, she really is very good here as lovestruck and determined Milla – a character that leads us up different paths with her mannerisms and decisions but those deviations become a large part of the reasons why the character is so successful. At particular points in Babyteeth, Milla will look directly into the camera as if to look at us watching and observing her actions, the gestures don’t happen often but they’re eerily effective. Wallace also carries off a tough role with real quality. He brings plenty of layers to the character that allows him to be multi-faceted as opposed to simply just a junkie and the two of them work wonderfully together. That said, Murphy doesn’t strive to make the characters entirely endearing – she allows their situations to dictate their behaviours in order to bring that sense of hard realism and the fact that there really are no pure, saccharine/manipulative moments between the pair feels right. Their duality provides many interesting obstacles and also moral questions as well (Milla’s love vs. Moses addiction). The always impressive Essie Davis is once again on top form and Ben Mendelsohn is magnetic as the father trapped in varying emotional states. As the parents, the two face difficult decisions – do they put a halt to Milla’s only potential chance at love or do they allow it despite the risks and dangers the relationship presents? On top of that, the pair also face their own inner struggles with pharmaceutical drugs and their waning relationship amongst other things. Everyone is affected by multiple issues that allow for subplots to emerge from the main story but none that feel tacked on or distracting, everything happens for a reason.
Babyteeth has a strange dreamlike quality throughout, whilst it always feels ‘real’ there are times where a near-psychedelic feeling envelops the movie and the decision to use handheld cameras proves successful as they are utilised efficiently which adds to the nervous tension, atmosphere and also the voyeuristic nature of the movie - at times it feels like we really are looking on in these people’s lives like a fly on the wall (shoutout to DoP Andrew Commis). With such a large focus on drugs, it’s refreshing that Murphy decides to not glamorise drugs but also doesn’t demonize them either, there’s no commentary on the usage, just the effects and ramifications. It’s a well-written movie in pretty much every aspect and each heavy moment hits with the desired impact but, on the flipside, the sprinklings of comedy are well-placed and honesty needed to provide levity to a movie that could easily have been TOO real and heavy. On that note, the ending wrecked me (or endings), but I won’t go into details, you’ll have to check out the movie first. Your tolerance for indie/arthouse flicks may dictate your enjoyment of Babyteeth though. It is off-kilter, methodically paced and its segmented approach may be too indulgent for some.
Shannon Murphy has crafted an engaging story laced with humanity, real emotion and stellar performances that further enhance an excellent movie. Babyteeth is a brutal, honest and affecting journey that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Also, I can’t think of anywhere else you’ll see a mustachioed Mendo getting it on whilst eating a sandwich and answering phones.
June 29th 2020