Babyteeth

 

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A film that starts knowingly as a romcom but is headed for something more remarkable. 

 
Babyteeth
  

The Australian director Shannon Murphy is well experienced in theatre and in television but is here making her first feature film. As adapted by Rita Kalnejais from the play which she wrote in 2012, the piece successfully hides its stage origin but proves to be remarkably close in character to the 2015 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Many will recall that work as being an adventurous take on a sub-genre that often falls into sentimentality and lacks distinction - that is to say it was a tale of young love in which one of the lovers is dying of cancer. Babyteeth is at least as adroit as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and, arguably, even better. Above all it is elevated by the extraordinary conviction that all of the lead actors bring to their roles.

 

The dying girl in this case is Milla Finlay, a 16-year-old living in Sydney with her parents Henry and Anna (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis). Milla herself is played by the very talented Eliza Scanlen (the actress who appeared as Beth in Greta Gerwig's recent Little Women) and the boyfriend, several years older and somebody involved with drugs, is Moses. The latter role is taken by a striking actor with strong sex appeal, Toby Wallace, and his portrayal makes us understand both why Milla should become enamoured so quickly and why her parents should disapprove of him. Only when Milla's need for him becomes clear at a time when it has become apparent that she has not long to live do the parents invite Moses into their home.

 

Most audiences who seek out this film will doubtless be aware of its cancer theme, but the film does not make it apparent immediately. Indeed, the initial tone is decidedly that of the romcom (the film starts with a meeting cute in the first of a series of labelled sections - this one being called 'When Milla Met Moses on Platform 4’ - and when shortly thereafter she invites Moses home to meet her parents for the first time the uneasy meal scene is a comedy staple). Consequently, Babyteeth emerges as a film that, moving increasingly into serious territory but without entirely relinquishing its humorous touches, seeks to vary its tone. For a film that might have been content to please a young audience who would not despise a popular weepie, it contains elements which, as it develops, take it beyond that category. If titled chapters are one feature that it shares with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, so too is its use of music which, although it does include some songs on the soundtrack, extends to classical music including in this instance Mozart and Bach. There's another less direct comparison too: that earlier film incorporated references to European film makers and, while that does not happen here, it is nevertheless the case that the most audacious scene in Babyteeth brings to mind Michael Haneke's Amour (2012).

 

Ultimately this is a work to be thought of as a tragicomedy and the degree of its appeal may depend in part on how readily one accepts mood switches. That's because some but not all of the comedy seems to inhabit a rather artificial world and one which is therefore at odds with the desire to make the audience become emotionally involved with the characters. It helps that as written the parents are presented in some depth but rather than succumbing fully I personally remained aware that the film was walking a tightrope. Nevertheless, part of Murphy's undoubted success as a debutant film director lies in the sheer quality of all of the main performances.  Any doubts that one may have are countered by that achievement.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Michelle Lotters, Sora Wakaki, Renee Billing, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Edward Lau.

 

Dir Shannon Murphy, Pro Alex White, Screenplay Rita Kalnejais, from her play, Ph Andrew Commis, Pro Des Sherree Philips, Ed Steve Evans, Music Amanda Brown, Costumes Amelia Gebler.

 

Screen Australia/Create NSW/Spectrum Films/Weir Anderson.com & Jan Chapman Films/Whitefalk Films-Picturehouse Entertainment.
118 mins. Australia. 2019. Rel: 14 August 2020. Available in cinemas. Cert. 15.