Babyteeth leaves you with the feeling of pure elation and palpable regret. Shannon Murphy’s debut feature will surely be remembered as one of the year’s very best films.
I’m quite certain Babyteeth, the debut feature film from director Shannon Murphy (Killing Eve), will be like no other film experience you’ll have this year. It’s a celebration of life, no matter where it begins, leads, or how it will surely end. It is euphoric without the overwhelming intoxication, while heart-wrenching without being detrimental. The protagonist she puts on the screen never looks back, only forward, and is always living in this very moment; even if she is pulling her family and friends, who remain in a constant state of suspended limbo, along with her.
Eliza Scanlen (Little Women) plays Milla, a strong-willed and determined ill 16-year-old who is fighting cancer at the moment. She is awakened from walking through life numb by meeting a local drug user, dealer, and homeless twenty-something named Moses (Toby Wallace). He’s a mess. He steals from Milla’s parents; he mumbles his way through numerous incoherent thoughts and is barely a functioning drug addict. Her parents, Anna (The Babadook‘s Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn… Jesus, just astonishing in this role) aren’t happy about the match, but don’t exactly put any of their feet down either — how can you tell your daughter to stop spending time with someone who makes her happy when her time may be fleeting?
Murphy, a stalwart theatre and television director takes a script from Rita Kalnejais, based on her own play, and both bring the sensibility of a theater experience while also effortlessly laying the groundwork for a new type of teen or family drama. This could have easily been about a teen with a serious illness that could have tripped and tumbled down the rabbit-hole of melodramatic young-adult fare. Babyteeth is certainly not that, it is far and above that genre; it’s just so refreshing to put teenagers on-screen with health issues in such a realistic and engaging way.
The performances here are stunning, really. Scanlen and Mendelsohn should be required to stand up and take a bow after every screening of Babyteeth reaches its credits (or someone trailing them to toss roses at their feet — I’m fine with either). Scanlen is a revelation, giving us insight into a world whose window may be slowly closing and is frenetically trying to live life to the fullest. Mendelsohn is also funny, moving, ever so touching as a father struggling with his daughter’s demise (so much so, as you’ll notice, he sweetly tries to capture almost every moment of her with countless pictures from his camera that he always keeps handy).
BabyTteeth has a look, feel, pacing, and sound that’s different from so many films that it could come across as too quirky (How to Build a Girl, for example). This would be a mistake, and if you watch it again, you’ll find some of the oddball humor and actions aren’t really what they appear to be at all. It has to do more with dialogue being wrapped with textured visuals and emotional reactions that are sincere. It’s the unfiltered honesty of a group of people not knowing when their time together is up because there just isn’t any time for bullshit at the moment.
This is simply a stunning feature, debut or not, by Murphy. It works as a comedy about waking up to life from deep slumber and as a drama that opens your eyes to what’s important in life or vice versa. It grabs your attention and leaves you to ponder its devastatingly effective conclusion (that score by Amanda Brown, I swear, makes the hair on your arms stand up). It leaves you with the feeling of pure elation and palpable regret. Babyteeth will surely be remembered as one of the year’s very best films.
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M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.