Babyteeth Movie Review
Well, shit. We have another coming-of-age drama… and about a terminally ill teen no less. This one’s called Babyteeth, from director Shannon Murphy and first-time writer Rita Kalnejas, and it’s earning rave reviews from certain corners of criticland. And understandably so, as it avoids the maudlin cliches of the genre and intentional efforts to squeak teardrops from those precious ducts of yours.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is dying, yes, but the movie isn’t about her death--it’s about finding joy in the days and months leading up to her death. Unfortunately for her parents, played beautifully by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, she finds joy in all the wrong places, namely Moses (Toby Wallace), who may be able to part the Red Sea but who also is several years older, decorated in tattoos, and is a drug dealer.
What sets Babyteeth apart is that this isn’t a sentimental film about two sappy teen lovers falling for each other until one of them inevitably bites the dust; Milla and Moses certainly aren’t right for each other, but they’re right for each other for this particular moment in their lives.
It’s this awkward but compelling dynamic that sets the movie on its path; it’s hard to see exactly what Milla sees in Moses, other than he appears to be someone who doesn’t treat her as if she’s dying. Perhaps more of a friend than a lover, but with perks, he doesn’t treat her great, but Babyteeth really isn’t about Milla’s evolution or discovery--her destiny is set--but those around her.
Scanlen is terrific, but the film pulses more so on the chemistry between her and Wallace. Wallace, for his part, plays the most fascinating character in the film, a young man who isn’t particularly likable and yet has a charm and humanity that grabs attention. But really, the chemistry between the entire cast, and the intriguing dynamics at play that Murphy and Kalnejas let loose, is what propels the story; the up-and-down-and-sideways relationship between Mendelsohn and Davis’s characters, pushed to the brink by the exhaustion of a dying daughter and the acceptance that they should let her find joy even in ways they wouldn’t approve, is equally captivating.
Despite all this, Babyteeth isn’t gripping drama, or comedy (IMDB lists it as a comedy, and I’ve seen some reference to humor I didn’t notice); it’s a solid indie coming-of-age film that defines itself by different variables, but is it so commanding or enthralling or powerful that it deserves attention? Not quite.
But there’s no denying that Murphy and Kalnejas tapped into a raw nerve here, and for those who invest the time, they’ll be rewarded with a film that revolves around death and yet is very much bursting with life and color.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.