Eliza Scanlen as Milla Finlay
Toby Wallace as Moses
Emily Barclay as Toby
Eugene Gilfedder as Gidon
Essie Davis as Anna Finlay
Ben Mendelsohn as Henry Finlay
Andrea Demetriades as Jenny
Edward Lau as Tin Wah
Zach Grech as Isaac
Georgina Symes as Polly
Michelle Lotters as Scarlett
Directed by Shannon Murphy; Written by Rita Kalnejais
The coming-of-age dramedy genre is littered with everything from kindhearted and poignant affairs to exploitative and emotion-manipulating efforts, namely when it comes to a terminally ill character, and in order to set themselves apart from the pack, one must have a unique or original story to tell and though the latter may not be true about Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, it is most certainly the former.
When seriously ill teenager Milla falls madly in love with small-time drug dealer Moses, it’s her parents’ worst nightmare. But as Milla’s first brush with love brings her a renewed lust for life, traditional morals go out the window, leaving her parents wanting to hold tighter to their little girl. Milla soon teaches everyone in her orbit – her parents, Moses, a sensitive music teacher, a budding child violinist, and a disarmingly honest, pregnant neighbor – how to live like you have nothing to lose. What might have been a disaster for the Finlay family instead leads to letting go and finding grace in the glorious chaos of life.
A terminally ill teenager falling in love has been the subject of far too many clichéd films in the past decade, but with Babyteeth, written by Rita Kalnejais and based on her stage play of the same name, we’re treated to an actually interesting and different take on the genre and on the characters involved. The way Milla is depicted, both in marketing and in the film, doesn’t hardly openly advertise her sickness, which feels like a nice creative decision as we as viewers get to actually meet and learn about who she is as a person rather than let her sickness define her. So often in film when meeting a terminally ill character, we start with their illness and expand outwards in learning their unique traits and personalities, forcing that pathos down audiences’ throats as the film nears its end and heartbreak looms in the background.
But with Milla, Kalnejais throws this convention out the window and instead chooses to introduce us to the sweet, bizarre and funny character that she is before eventually revealing she is in fact dealing with a life-threatening illness. The rest of characters featured in the film also prove to be something of an unheard of nature, featuring a pill-popping mother, possibly adulterous father and small-time drug dealer with proper morals who truly cares for the protagonist. Some of the story arcs become a bit bizarre and unresolved as the film progresses, but Kalnejais and Murphy keep things grounded just enough and throw in plenty of dark comedy so as to not alienate audiences and keep it all believable, even if it means stepping into some familiar and unremarkable territories.
Even when the film finds itself wading in some formulaic waters, it’s always kept afloat thanks to the phenomenal performances of each of its leads. Though Milla is not an inherently unlikable character, she has moments that are hard to connect to but Scanlan brings these moments to life brilliantly, proving herself a truly powerful lead. Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn have yet to deliver a bad performance and this is certainly not a bump in the road for either of them, as both prove to be thoroughly compelling and truly embrace their roles.
Babyteeth may play a few formulaic notes and ends predictably, but thanks to Kalnejai’s powerful and funny script, Murphy’s tender direction and compelling performances from its cast, it sets itself apart from most other films in the coming-of-age dramedy genre.