By Peg Aloi
Babyteeth is a lovely film, an unusually mature coming-of-age story that juggles restraint and abandon with astonishing ease.
Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
The opening image of Shannon Murphy’s stunning debut feature Babyteeth is a slow-motion close-up of a tooth dropping in a glass of water. At first, it’s not clear what we’re looking at: A fish? A plastic toy? A buoyant string quartet version of “Golden Brown” (a 1981 song by UK band The Stranglers) sets the mood: melancholy but beautiful. Next we see Milla (Little Women’s Eliza Scanlen) waiting for a subway train that will take her to her private school. She stands apart from her classmates, lost in reverie, inhaling deeply. Could she be contemplating stepping in front of the oncoming train? Suddenly, Moses (Toby Wallace) leaps past her and bumps her aside. He pretends to jump, but stops just as the train approaches. A title appears: “When Milla Met Moses on Platform 4.” These titles appear throughout, dividing the story into vignettes; they place events in a clear timeline, but also contextualize scenes in an oddly omniscient way. In addition to the perspective provided by these titles, Milla every so often glances right at the camera. They may be trying to tell my story, she seems to be saying to the viewer, but only I can do that.
Milla’s friends are not impressed by Moses’s joke; they thumb their noses at him. Milla, shaken, remains behind on the platform as they head to school. Moses compliments her golden brown hair, pulled into a ponytail with red ribbons. “It’s like bangles,” he says, clearly as high as a kite. She gets a nosebleed and feels faint, and he cradles her in his arms. He asks her for money. Later that day, Moses gives her a choppy haircut, like his own. He’s a homeless drug dealer, a few years older than she is. She’s a middle-class suburban schoolgirl who plays the violin. His physicality is brazen yet affable, and it has a catalyzing effect on Milla: she is clearly smitten with this bad boy. But there’s more than teenage rebellion happening here.
The next scene takes place at a therapy appointment, with the title “Anna and Henry’s Tuesday Appointment.” What we see initially looks to be unethical: a psychiatrist is having sex with a client. But it turns out that this couple is married and that they are Milla’s parents. Anna (Essie Davis, seen in recent Australian films The Babadook and True History of the Kelly Gang) is highly strung and takes mood-altering medication. Henry (Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn) seems easily distracted, particularly when he meets Toby (Emily Barclay), who is single, pregnant, and just moved in next door. Once we learn that Milla has cancer, what seems to be a quirky, coming-of-age family drama takes on a dark resonance infused with perverse humor. The young woman is surrounded by others with their own problems and fears. But, in her case, these challenges are not balanced with hopes and dreams about the future. She seems aware she has a finite amount of time left — even if her parents don’t. Those occasional looks at the camera, breaking the fourth wall, hint at Milla’s special wisdom, the mysterious depth and awareness of a girl on the cusp of adulthood.
Moses is bad news: a drug addict as well as a dealer, his behavior is erratic and self-centered. Yet he’s also gentle with Milla: he keeps her at arms’ length even when she throws herself at him. Her parents want Moses to stay away from their daughter, but he may be the only thing in her life that makes her happy. What’s more, Henry and Anna are fighting their own demons — in addition to having to deal with a dying daughter. Anna wants desperately to get off her meds; Henry is struggling with his own serious drug issues. The time they spend with Milla is often fraught and tense, the typical tumult generated by having a teenager in the house. On the other hand, they’re aching to keep time from passing, to freeze memories of their daughter even as they’re slipping away. Milla wants her mother, a talented pianist, to perform with her — but Anna can’t bear it. Henry sits near his daughter, their hands touching, quietly comfortable in each others’ presence. But his face betrays deep pain and dread.
Babyteeth spins a kind of magic around scenes with Milla: the colorfully lit rooms of a club where Moses takes them to a rave suggest an eldritch fairyland. After Milla’s hair falls out from chemo treatments, she takes to wearing a bright aquamarine wig that makes her blue eyes glow. Anna buys her a dress of the same color for a school dance. These colorful riffs recreate Milla as a mermaid or a space alien, inhabiting a parallel world. Eliza Scanlen’s performance is subdued, subtle, and incandescent; she makes us see, in the girl’s misfit artsy persona, evidence of a life yet to be lived, hints of the talented, passionate woman Milla may yet become. Davis and Mendelsohn could hardly be better in their roles as two bedeviled people navigating impossible emotional terrain, and Wallace explodes on the screen as Moses, Milla’s foil and muse. The soundtrack is eclectic and well-curated, the score tensive and moving, the cinematography lush and haunting. It’s unusual to see a feature debut that reflects such a confident artistic vision, that manages to convey so many different tones. Rita Kalnejais’s screenplay is subtle and unexpectedly funny; at times it is harrowing and raw. I can’t recall ever seeing a film that does anything quite like this that didn’t also feel at least somewhat pretentious or derivative. Wholly original, Babyteeth is a lovely and haunting film, an unusually mature coming-of-age story that juggles restraint and abandon with astonishing ease.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.