There are a number of familiar faces in the cast of the Shannon Murphy’s feature debut. Lead Eliza Scanlen was seen in last winter’s Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019), while Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn are character actors appearing in hits big and small. However, even with such illustrious credits to their name, Babyteeth is a drama that will stand out on any CV.
Scanlen plays Milla, a teenager with a serious illness who falls quite literally into the arms of Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old who is every parent’s worst nightmare. A drifter who steals and sells pills, Milla’s parents Anna and Henry (Davis and Mendelsohn) cautiously welcome him into their new home, before banning him from seeing their daughter after he is caught stealing. However, as Milla’s health issues increase, they seek out an unusual arrangement with Moses to keep their child happy.
Interspersed with written titles that read like pages in a diary (“The Shower Routine”, “Things Changed”, or simply “Fuck This”), the film begins with an examination of suburban pain. Everyone we meet is nursing some kind of desperation that they don’t talk about. Psychiatrist Henry drowns Anna in pills to counter her moods, while he is drawn like a magnet to new neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay), drawn to the simplicity of her outlook. Anna punishes herself for wasting time in the past, embodied in her refusal to play piano.
As for Milla, she simply wants to be a teenager, to do all the things her illness deprives her of. It’s not hard to understand, as she runs into dangerous situations because, well, how could it get any worse? She sees an escape in Moses, who she sees as fearless. Wallace lets us know that’s far from the case, showing us a man who initially sees her as a mark, then recoils as feelings begin to grow.
The emotional nuance in the script requires exceptional actors to deliver it, and everyone involved exceeds in their role. There’s a dark comedy to how everyone deals with the strange situation that emerges, typified when Moses is caught stealing and Milla declares that she won’t respect Henry if he calls the police. Murphy hammers home the imperfection of her characters, who try to do the right thing and find it’s not that simple.
At the midway point, the conflict eases and this awkward new family takes shape. “This is the worst possible parenting I could imagine” Anna reflects, to which Henry gives a flummoxed sigh. So much of what this film has to say is reflected in terrified looks in the mirror, or trailed off, clumsy sentences. It feels human, and beds you in before hitting you in the gut with a devastating final half hour.
Babyteeth is out in cinemas on Friday, August 14th.