Australian director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, “Babyteeth,” is a gentle, affecting tearjerker that hits so many of the right notes and a few jarring ones. Eliza Scanlen is Milla, the teenage daughter of a well-off psychiatrist and a classical pianist mother, but her privilege does not make her particularly fortunate: she’s just been diagnosed with cancer.
“Babyteeth” doesn’t open with hospital waiting rooms or tearful exchanges; instead with a startled 15-year-old girl on a train platform in her school uniform. It’s there she has a chance meeting with Moses (Toby Wallace), a rat-tail-sporting older boy with a face tattoo and some well-hidden good looks beneath. As it transpires, he’s a drug addict who’s just been kicked out of his parents’ house. There’s an instant lightning strike of chemistry between them; their link is almost instinctive. Moses is invited back to meet Milla’s parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). Predictably, they don’t exactly approve, but seeing the unwell Milla’s affection for him, they become increasingly weak-willed.
Moses lies, steals, and disappears when he’s high, but fundamentally, he cares deeply for Milla. “This is the worst parenting ever,” Anna says to her husband as they watch Milla and Moses flirt and fall exhilaratingly in love under their gaze. It’s funny, and a little true, but it’s also merciful happiness they’re giving to their daughter.
Meanwhile, Anna and Henry are fraying at the edges. Milla shaves her head and dons a wig, dealing with the harsh symptoms of chemotherapy while doing her damndest to carry on. Mendelssohn is wonderful and understated as Henry, a psychiatrist whose profession can’t stop him from backsliding into the male stereotype of the closed-off husband. Unable to cope with his emotions, he shuts down while his wife flails. Davis, as Anna, does much of the emotional heavy lifting in the film, struggling to function normally with the aid of a mountain of anti-anxiety drugs. In one scene, she sits on the floor sorting out bills while her daughter – back from a rough day at school – comes in wordlessly and drops to the carpet to hug her mother. The camera pans upward slowly to look down at the tops of the women’s heads in embrace, Pietà-like.
Murphy’s sensitivity for the finer points of family relationships and intimacy – the hormone surge of first love; the volleying between antagonism and need with mothers and daughters. It’s also notable that pharmaceutical cushions are a temptation for nearly every major character in the movie, providing a sympathetic backdrop for Moses’ drug issues. (Substance abuse is all a matter of degrees of acceptability, the director seems to suggest.)
There’s style, here, too, in subtle and unsubtle ways. The aesthetic is often handheld and knowingly pretty, and the director has a fondness for using unusual sources of light, refracting on her actors’ faces – swirling projections on the wall during a party at a gallery, or fairy lights, or the reddish cast from a karaoke bar. So too, Murphy gives her protagonist a distinctive sense of self and style, with a long blonde wig soon superseded by a blunt dyed-turquoise bob.
Still, there are some missteps along the way. Both as a visual motif and a way to fill what feels like dead time, Milla often dances around living rooms and shops; it’s a little bit too much of a cheap shorthand for free-spiritedness. Her mother is a musician and she is a trained violinist, so her love of music makes sense, but the efficacy of those scenes is dulled through repetition. In the final, inexorable act of “Babyteeth,” there is sometimes one heartfelt line too far, one look too long; there’s a lack of restraint or narrative economy here that’s fairly common for a first-time filmmaker. Given the subject matter, it’s difficult not to stray into mawkishness of some kind. But even with mistakes, the power of the main narrative is hard to erode.
The heartbreaking story that “Babyteeth” tells is not new in a general sense, in that there are plenty of other teens-with-cancer stories (“A Fault in Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl“). But it does approach the topic without most of the sentimentality and convention that those other movies trade in; it avoids any specificity about Milla’s illness, her prognosis, or all the other elements of cancer most audience members are already, sadly, familiar with. Its effectiveness is – for the most part – in its subtlety, in Milla’s refusal to wallow, and in its emotional intelligence. The end product is an imperfect but devastating story about doing our best with the cards we are dealt. [B+]