Babyteeth, puppy love, & cancer

A Family drama
Written by Rita Kalnejais
Directed by Shannon Murphy

Drugs, a wild boyfriend, and worst of all, cancer, take over a distressed family in this Australian drama. Babyteeth could have been a very mawkish weepy, trying to pull tears out of your eyes. Instead, the filmmakers treat its characters and situations on a level keel. That makes the story all the more powerful.

Teenaged Milla (Eliza Scanlen) has cancer. She will not have a long life and will probably not live beyond adolescence. She will probably not live beyond adolescence. Scanlen gives an exceptional performance as Milla. She seems innocent with a sense of sadness. Milla wears a variety of wigs over her bald head (Scanlen had to shave her own hair for the part). No wonder she fell for the first guy who looked at her.

She meets Moses in the very first scene. He seems like a wild young man, too old for Milla, with a hint of danger. Toby Wallace plays the part as someone on the edge of good and evil. Within minutes of their first meeting, he gently helps her with a nosebleed. But he also claims homelessness and asks for her money. Later he will threaten her mother with a kitchen knife while stealing drugs. Clearly, Milla’s parents are not happy about their daughter’s new friend.

Milla’s father is a psychiatrist, so the house is full of prescription drugs. His wife, Milla’s mother, is also one of father’s patients – something that I’m pretty sure is not professional behavior. Or perhaps their sessions together aren’t serious, but are only a form of foreplay. One thing we know about these two people: Father is supplying drugs to mother to help her get through the day.

Babyteeth uses intertitles like Nausea and Romance, Part I to introduce particular scenes. These printed words create an emotionally distancing effect that helps the audience get through the very sad story.

This is very much an actor’s movie, and pretty much all of the performances work. Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis give excellent performances as the loving, suffering, and sometimes stoned parents. They’ll do anything to make their daughter happy for as long as possible. On the other hand, they argue frequently.

Even the minor characters feel real. There’s a music teacher who may have been one of Mother’s pre-marriage lovers, and a very pregnant neighbor who seems to have no partner but has a strange relationship with Father. Milla and her mother are both musicians (not professional), and Milla goes to a special music school.

Babyteeth could have been a soap opera. But the filmmakers instead created a realistic and deeply affecting study of a family in tragedy.

Just remember that the film is set in Australia. The steering wheels are on the right side and Christmas comes in summer.

Since IFC Films doesn’t do virtual cinema, and Bay Area theaters are still closed, Babyteeth is available for streaming at Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Apple, Vudu.

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