This debut feature by the Australian film-maker Shannon Murphy, adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her stage play, is well acted, heartfelt, beautifully filmed. It’s a coming-of-age story of first love and family dysfunction with something of abstinence-adjacent YA tragedies such as The Fault in Our Stars and Midnight Sun. And however unfashionable Sam Mendes’s ’burb-dramedy American Beauty has become, Babyteeth shows the influence of that movie, with all its alienation and sexual anxiety experienced within the fraught family unit by teens and boomers. Babyteeth is watchable and emotionally forthright, though it has a fairly picturesque idea of what dying from cancer in your teens looks like. You might call it Insta-oncology.
Eliza Scanlen is excellent as Milla, a 16-year-old in remission from cancer, wearing a wig to school to conceal her baldness. She also has a problem with her baby teeth, which may connote an ironised infantilism, and she’s lonely and frustrated with her well-meaning but controlling parents: Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis), a former musician who gave it up to be a stay-at-home, hands-on mom. They never open up to Milla about how they’re feeling but they clearly have their issues – having taken to despairing lunchtime sex in Henry’s treatment room, yearning (in vain) for the quasi-adulterous role-play effect to reignite their intimacy. Henry has his own problems with prescription medication. They are frantically overprotective of Milla and duly horrified when she falls for Moses (Toby Wallace), a low-grade drug dealer and user – who has a spark of passionate life. It could be that only Moses can give Milla what she needs in whatever time she has left, and only Milla can redeem Moses.
I wasn’t sure about the quirky chapter headings in the deadpan sans-serif font, but the story has its own emotional force and this is down to the really high standard of ensemble performance – shaped by Murphy’s direction – and the light, crisp, attractive look of the film created by cinematographer Andrew Commis and production designer Sherree Phillips. Scanlen gives an intelligent reading of her character’s pressures and Mendelsohn delivers a lovely, warm portrayal of her father.
Scanlen and Wallace have a great rapport, although I’m not sure they would avoid talking about sex in the way they do here. Inevitably the ending is the big test, and Babyteeth ducks the issue somewhat in an admittedly ingenious way.
The best scene comes at Milla’s school, when she is in the girls’ toilets looking at herself in the mirror and one of the high-status girls, all friendliness and smiles, asks if she can try on Milla’s wig – just to see what she would look like. It is an edge-of-the-seat moment, coolly handled by Murphy. A film with real sensitivity.
Babyteeth is released in UK cinemas on 14 August.