By Katya Spiers, Film & TV Digital Editor
Milla (Eliza Scanlen) isn’t like the other girls at her school, and Shannon Murphy really wants you to know it. The director’s debut feature Babyteeth (2020) is a gentle caress of a film that leaves you longing for just a little more depth.
After a brief encounter at the train station that toes the line between flirtation and assault, Milla brings small-scale drug dealer and soft-boy dreamboat Moses (the aggressively charming Toby Wallace) home for dinner. With Milla’s mother Anna (Essie Davis) drugged up on anti-anxiety medication and Milla’s psychologist father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) trying his best to thwart embarrassment, we’re introduced to the off-kilter, dysfunctional family unit around which Babyteeth centres.
Milla's parents are the film's biggest asset. They are not an afterthought, as is often typical of parents in coming-of-age films about quirky rebellious teens, but a distinct unit with their own problems and desires. They are a couple with a dried-up love life, who's relationship relies on distinctly un-romantic scheduled weekly lunchtime sex to keep itself afloat. Both longing for more of a spark, and yet roped together by an overbearing love for their daughter, Anna and Henry are willing to give their daughter anything they can to ease her suffering, ‘Milla deserves the world at her feet right now.’
What their daughter wants is, unsurprisingly, the bad boy. 'This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,’ Anna sighs as she and Henry look out onto Milla and Moses wrestling in the garden.
A wooden ibis bird statue sits on a shelf in Henry’s office – dull, static, and untouched – opposing the high-contrast shots of birds standing, chirping, eating watermelon at the side of the road which interject the film; reflecting the freedom that Moses has brought into Milla’s life.
The clinically perfect home in which the film focuses most of its time is a metaphor for Milla’s mother’s efforts to control her. A grand piano sits undisturbed in the middle of the room, glass panels remain immaculately polished, not an ornament is out of place. All it takes is the introduction of Moses and the house comes to life. Suddenly the place where Milla is trapped due to her declining condition no longer cages her in.
Babyteeth is about the imperfect: by inviting chaos into their lives, Milla’s family breaks free from the confines that had previously restricted them. The film doesn’t dwell on the gruelling side of Milla’s cancer treatments – not glossing over them entirely, but focusing instead on the silliness, neon-lit parties and the first sexual experiences that help to free her from her severe condition.
Though the characters are well thought-out and delicately portrayed, the film does have some missing pieces, leaving it feel not entirely whole. The parents’ relationship troubles could be fleshed out, as could the details of Moses’ precarious family situation, which remain a mystery throughout, despite his brother being introduced to the plot towards the close of the film.
Delicate acting and sparkling on-screen chemistry between both Milla and Moses and the parents establish a fondness for the characters which is only let down by the fact that they lack the character depth that would separate Babyteeth completely from the tropes of another Fault in Our Stars-esque (2014) dying-teen-love-story.
Babyteeth is now showing at The Everyman, The Orpheus and The Showcase Cinema in Bristol.