“You look like a different person.”
The multitudes of love and loss, of the here and the now, of the enviable past and the undeniable future are laid out for all to see in Babyteeth, a little Indie film that packs a tremendous emotional punch. The movie makes you question right from wrong, defies judging books on the basis of their tattered covers, and sheds an ultraviolet light on the fragility – as well as the determined vigor – of the human spirit. It’s an imperfect picture, and one of the rare moviegoing experiences where the initial flaws round out the overall scope. I’m not sure you can watch Babyteeth without forming some kind of relationship with its characters. That we unexpectedly reciprocate such deep emotions speaks to the film’s strengths.
We know a few things about Milla (Eliza Scanlen): she’s a young lass on the cusp of finishing Secondary School, classmates cast her aside, and sickness has her wanting to leap onto the rail hoping to end it all. That’s when we first see the little leading lady. The train approaches and she prepares for demise. But then a shirtless, disheveled young man steals her thunder and sprints towards the locomotive, barely stopping shy of his own flirtation with annihilation. Milla is annoyed and vexed. He laughs, seemingly out of want and frustration, and introduces himself as Moses (Toby Wallace), and follows his physical cry for help with a literal plea for money while refusing large sums; he’s happy to take, but has no interest in pilfering open pockets. Their friendship practically springs from nowhere, and maybe that’s because they’re two loners looking for somebody – for anyone – to see them beyond their surface level ailments and afflictions. She sees in him the missing pieces he sees in her. It goes both ways.
In a standard romantic comedy, this perverse encounter would technically classify as a dirtied meet-cute, but Babyteeth is a drama down to its core, and this open is an introduction to two unwell people who find temporary respite in the comfort of the other. Her body is sick and his addicted brain can’t function any better. Maybe that’s why they’re so drawn to each other, two magnets with differing forces that can’t help but to be pulled in by the opposite wavelength. Such is the power of requited love. The same can’t be said for Milla’s concerned parents. Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a therapist and his wife Anna (Essie Davis) is his live in client, and both numb themselves to the fact that there’s nothing they do can save their little girl from the cruel reality of cancer. Milla knows this all too well, and it seems that her relationship with Moses is an attempt to turn over a new leaf. To regain the control that’s been taken away from her prematurely. They are drawn to, fixated on, and destined to collide with each other. Sounds a lot like young love to me.
The occasional, off-color brilliance of Babyteeth lies in how playwright Rita Kalnejais painstakingly adapted her stage play for the screen, and how she trusted director Shannon Murphy to elevate scenes and casual moments beyond the surface level. While the film was a bit too keen on whimsy for my taste, especially during the opening act, the whole endeavor becomes grounded as Milla and Moses continue to find themselves in need of one another rather than simply being in a worried state of want. Not every aspect of the story hits all of the high notes or feels completely organic, but for the most part, Babyteeth is a daring feat of direction and a sublime piece of writing. Its bite leaves a lasting crescent moon mark.
A movie of this nature depends on well-rounded characters with sincere chemsitry, and Eliza Scanlen completely lets her guard down as a teenage girl whose clock is ticking at an unfair rate. She’s remarkable, and yet I can’t get over the magnitude of Toby Wallace’s performance as the soft street boy Moses. His is a rare piece of amateur acting that’s somehow tempered and authentic, blending pieces of his own personality into this mercurial character, and it’s the kindly degenerate Moses who parts the seas both for the story and for Milla. It’s the best performance I’ve seen this year, and it helps Babyteeth turn tragedy and the expected trajectory of terminal illness into a whirlwind experience, twirling itself into a tornado of emotions and spinning a familiar genre yarn with its own unique twist and verve. Few films this familiar manage to be this unique.
“She’s gonna be okay.”
Rating: 4 out of 5