Shannon Murphy's debut feature is about as assured a first film as you will find. The film's plot is full of every terrible trope from a Sundance hit and yet it finds a voice so crystal clear that it avoids the sentimentality and dour tone that sinks films like it. It balances beauty, joy, sadness and pain to striking effect. The film is about hearts getting broken and it will likely earn the right to break yours.
Babyteeth follows Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen), a 16-year-old Australian high schooler who's sick with cancer. She meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old drug addict by chance while waiting for a train and falls for him hard. Of course he is trouble but his affection for Milla is genuine and not icky. He has already lost so much when Milla meets him and she stands to lose everything. The two bond quickly and it never feels as sinister as it could.
Her parents are initially up in arms over Milla's infatuation with Moses. They are barely holding on with the inescapable reality of losing their daughter. Henry (Ben Medelsohn), her psychiatrist father and her drugged up mother Anna (Essie Davis) are trying to hold on to anything that resembles the happy life they had before Milla got sick. It informs their bold choice to let Moses in. They want their daughter to know love, to live the fullest life possible before it is too late and so they go against their better judgment. It is a heartbreaking decision full of such love.
Babyteeth never lets you get comfortable with the directions it takes. This quality makes it stand out among other "kids with cancer" films. The film throws curveballs at the audience all the time so that you never know exactly where the story will land. Murphy shows her talents here in taking what could have been predictable and making it far from that.
The film has a rich musicality to it. Milla is learning violin and can play with such emotion when she lets herself go. A key scene at a party uses tUnE-yArDs's "Bizness" to great effect. There are some first film elements that don't work. The chapter titles employed often don't seem necessary, just style over substance.
The performances are all wonderful. Davis and Mendelsohn internalize so much of their character's pain that it isn't until the final moments that you feel the power of their acting. Scanlen is magnetic as Milla, capturing the erratic behavior and moods of a young girl faced with so much. Wallace is equally compelling as Moses. He find so much humor in his character's dark life.
Babyteeth has its own feral rhythm to it. It moves beyond what on paper sounds like a punishing story to something full of life. Murphy is a real talent and someone to look out for.