The debut film from Australian director Shannon Murphy is an astonishing, funny and poignant coming-of-age tale that may just be my favourite film of the BFI London Film Festival so far, it will be hard to beat!
Sharp Objects break-out actress Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, an Australian schoolgirl from a comfortably middle class family, who has an abrupt encounter with an older street-kid Moses (Toby Wallace) that starts an intense infatuation, much to the confusion and concern of her parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). Despite the initial premise, this is no YA-slush or bland teen rom-com. As troubling as Milla and Moses’ romance is, it’s only the most obvious issue at hand.
As Milla runs headlong into situations her parents know are bad for her, she has the bravado of a cocky child in a young adult’s body (the title Babyteeth comes from the fact she retains one of her original baby teeth). Her parents are loving, but on edge, constantly trying to adjust to her needs which are compounded by the fact that Milla is undergoing medical treatment.
Babyteeth is remarkably assured and mature, filled with stylistic flourishes that flavour the story without overbearing it, and blending the laughs with the gut-punches. This isn’t another “quirky Australian comedy” but sits in the realm of Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird.
Screenwriter Rita Kalnejais populates Milla’s world with wonderful side characters delivered by pitch-perfect performances, a reckless, pregnant neighbour (who believes smoking while expecting is fine because she read it on the internet somewhere), a passionate but tough music teacher, even Moses’ mother makes an impact with barely any dialogue.
But it is the core quartet of Scanlen, Wallace, Mendelsohn and Davis that really elevate Babyteeth to something special. It’s rewarding to see Mendelsohn flex his acting muscles again after a run of similar Hollywood villain roles. His Henry is compassionate and flawed and desperately trying to keep afloat while his wife and daughter struggle. It’s a quiet and superbly balanced performance; he drew audible sobs from the audience by merely standing still with his back to the camera.
Or as one twitter commentator put it:
Scanlen makes Milla a believable teenager, none of her mood changes or actions read as false. Her attraction to Moses is understandable; he is seemingly free of all constraints while she is bound by so many beyond her control. Murphy has her break the fourth wall occasionally with a look, which in most cases would pull you out of the film, but by drawing us into Milla’s inner-world the audience becomes her co-conspirators and witnesses.
The hardest role however goes to Toby Wallace. In bringing Moses alive he adeptly walks the tightrope between making him unlikable and mean, or unconvincing and safe. Moses is a junkie. Moses is a thief. Moses has been kicked out of his own home by his parents. Moses is broken and conflicted. He knows his relationship with Milla is wrong in many ways, but he can’t bring himself to end it. He put her in danger, but also tries to be protective of her. His compassion is real, as is his addiction. He is attractive and repulsive all at once.
Babyteeth played me like a musical instrument; pulling me around from laughter to tears, to dread and fear, to smiles and warm hugs and back round again. It broke my heart and charmed the pants off me at the same time. This one is a real winner.
By Chad Armstrong
Babyteeth plays at the London Film Festival until October 12, with a UK cinema release coming via Picturehouse Entertainment.