Around the midpoint of “Babyteeth” – a bold and unruly directorial debut awash in impulsive ferocity fit for an early-summer release, even if not in cinemas – its two protagonists, Eliza Scanlen’s Milla and Toby Wallace’s Moses, sway drunkenly to a song being crooned at a sparsely populated club, lost in the ambiguity of their relationship and also reveling in it. She’s 16 and wearing a wig (one that makes her look 15 years older) to cover a shaved head indicating serious illness; he’s 23 with tattoos on his hand and under his eye. We’re long past the point when basic cinematic language has first raised red flags in our mind about that age difference, but “Babyteeth” subtly points out the temporality of this strange attraction—the camera fixes on a nearby karaoke machine, briefly lifting the moment’s luster and suggesting an artificiality to the authenticity of it all. Sometimes, the movie suggests, that’s the best we can possibly hope for.
Australian director Shannon Murphy’s first feature is the latest entry into the canon of stories about coming of age while coming to terms with the deadly clutch of sickness, although “Babyteeth” is more eager to take that contradiction to task than the heart-wrenching “The Fault in our Stars” or idiosyncratic “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” “Babyteeth” cooks up heart-wrenching and idiosyncratic moments of its own, to be sure. But what makes this an invigorating iteration of the sick-teen-girl-meets-a-guy tale is how willing it is to get on the ground level with its characters and embrace the kaleidoscopic states of being – of enduring – that they represent. Cliches are twisted and feelings are complicated, resulting in a thrilling take on familiar material.
“Babyteeth” follows the beguiling connection that forms early on between Milla and Moses, who have as little in common as their contrasting appearances during an initial encounter would suggest (she’s in a school uniform with her backpack waiting for the train, he nearly stumbles onto the tracks sans a shirt). Working off a script from Rita Kalnejas, the film doesn’t suffocate that initial suspicion. Instead, the oddness of the bond is drawn out until it embraces Milla’s parents, Anna and Henry (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, both superb). Their own relationship – which consists of the psychiatrist Henry reminding Anna to stay on her meds while the two casually spar over the execution of “basic conjugal duties” – becomes a parallel to that of Milla and Moses as “Babyteeth” begins to break down age and experience as badges of emotional authority. Anna and Henry’s roles develop nicely and emphatically as “Babyteeth” slowly expands beyond early scenes of scuzzy family dramedy.
Before too long, the transactional nature of Milla and Moses’s attraction becomes clear: He’s swiping drugs from Anna’s medicine cabinet to sell on the street, while she is infatuated with someone who’s ostensibly interested in her beyond trying out her wig in the school bathroom. Inevitably, intentions evolve, but “Babyteeth” manages to keep the narrative surprising (and sneakily affecting) with a spontaneity of tone that Murphy deploys with pizzazz and disregard for formal structure. Mimicking the instability of its characters, her film often switches up its stance on a moment’s notice, swerving from empathetic to caustic to defeated to energetic, sometimes within the span of a single scene (the soundtrack itself is intoxicating, but beware of being lulled into a false sense of security from individual songs).
The effect of Murphy’s kinetic direction is a sort of beautiful chaos that she and Kalnejas are able to weave into a narrative where the most conducive course of action for any given character is never clear. I sometimes wrestled in my attempts to discern the thoughts swirling around the minds of Milla and Moses, of Anna and Henry, but their malleable relationships come to resemble a marketplace of emotional compromises and reckonings that feel palpably true to life’s unfairness, wonders and shortcomings.
All the while, “Babyteeth” retains a self-awareness that reminds you not to wade too deep into the misery; chapters of the story are explicitly delineated with on-screen text reading “Insomnia,” “Breakthrough,” “A Little Bit High” and other titles. It’s a fun flourish, if ultimately expendable. More resonant is the scene where Milla briefly loses herself in the liberating aura of a neon-lit party that borders on the hypnotic, as if this was where she was meant to be all along.
By no means does this playfulness wring attention away from existential questions that simmer under the surface, namely “How can we experience the full breadth of life when its longevity is so uncertain?” Whereas the sickened protagonists in more sanitized versions of this story are relegated to the most sentimental answer to that inquiry, Scanlen’s Milla acts to the beat of her own drum, and the rhythm is a unique blend of recklessness and individual autonomy. Scanlen, for her part, is a livewire presence, turning Milla into a figure as confounding as she is alluring. The young Australian continues to carve out an exciting first act of her career on the heels of “Little Women” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects.”
While “Babyteeth” remains an enticing enigma even as it takes turns for the oblique and carefully constructed sentiment makes room for hang-loose zaniness, it’s at its most considered when it functions as a cost-benefit analysis of the different ways we reckon with life’s cruel twists and odd detours. Explicit questions are asked about the artificial tools we’re prescribed to navigate day-to-day life while subtler observations are made about the pieces of others we choose to instill in the architecture of our own souls (the final scene turns something as simple as a camera into a heart-breaking totem of mutual affection). “Babyteeth” turns affliction into a level playing field, and examines the fallout with an unflinching eye and honest curiosity; it’s one of the new decade’s most brilliant and promising debuts.
"Babyteeth" is unrated. It's available on various digital streaming platforms starting Friday.
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn, Toby Wallace
Directed by Shannon Murphy
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