Movie Review: Babyteeth (2019)

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In the startlingly original coming-of-age romance Babyteeth, first-time feature filmmaker Shannon Murphy brings the abstract concepts of love and death deliriously to life just as they're set to collide. 

Centering on the unlikely romance that develops between Eliza Scanlen's terminally ill fifteen-year-old Sydney, Australia girl Milla and a twenty-three-year-old small-time drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace), the film, which was written by Rita Kalnejais and based upon her eponymous play, is as starkly bitter as it is surprisingly sweet.

 A far cry from director Adam Shankman's pretty as a picture adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks weepie A Walk to RememberBabyteeth is driven less by the protracted drama that often accompanies most end-of-life movies than it is dependent upon the ever-changing emotions of the individuals at the heart of the film who are stuck in life's cruelest predicament. 

Messy, soaring, angry, feverish, freewheeling, and impulsive, Babyteeth doesn't alternate between moods so much as it does embrace them as they happen simultaneously. Early on in the movie, this culminates in one particularly chaotic scene when Milla brings her new friend Moses home for dinner.

Barely functioning from too much anxiety medication doled out by her psychiatrist husband Henry (a tremendous Ben Mendelsohn), Milla's protective mother Anna (a strong Essie Davis) isn't quite sure how to process this new development. Hurt that instead of meeting her mother at the beauty parlor to get her hair chopped off, Milla trusted a cute stranger with access to dog-grooming equipment instead, as Anna watches the two together, you sense that the thing she's jealous of most is that Moses stole time away from her daughter that was rightfully hers. 

Instantly suspicious of the twenty-something – who makes a far worse second impression on Milla's parents by breaking into their kitchen in the middle of the night to look for drugs – Henry and Anna are stopped from calling the authorities when they see the excitement in their daughter's eyes at his return. Ignoring the real reason for Moses' visit, as Milla chats animatedly with her new crush, her parents recognize something that they haven't seen in their daughter in quite some time – hope. 

Defying the two by kissing Moses goodbye when her mother drops her off at school, it takes a few more run-ins with the young man for Henry and Anna to realize that no matter how much they might disagree, if their daughter likes him, right now that's all that matters. 

Admirably, however, Babyteeth doesn't sugar-coat the fact that Moses is a homeless drug addict, dealer, and thief. Challenged to evolve thanks to Milla's love – like every single one of the film's main characters – it's to Scanlen and Wallace's credit that we begin to see Moses through her hopeful gaze early on. A powerful breakthrough by the actor who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor for his performance at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, Babyteeth also marks a strong follow-up by Scanlen to her similarly tragic turn in Greta Gerwig's 2019 adaptation of Little Women.  

Fearing and knowing that Wallace's Moses will break her heart at least once, the frenetic hand-held cinematography of DP Andy Commis pulls us tightly into the frame alongside our young protagonist. Putting us on equal footing with Henry and Anna throughout Murphy's intentionally visceral film, we feel as lost, protective, loving, and as desperate as Milla's parents do to try to make everything okay . . . at least for now. 

Visually inspired by A Woman Under the Influence and Breaking the Waves, Murphy is smart enough to remember that this is a film about a teenage girl after all. Filling Babyteeth's aesthetically pleasing cinematography with bright, bold hues to heighten the film's sense of urgency, as soon as those colors leave the screen for any length of time, the tone shifts almost imperceptibly and we start to feel on edge. 

Stirred by the soulful, sensitive turns by the dynamic ensemble, while the entire cast is outstanding, Babyteeth belongs to Ben Mendelsohn overall. Having taken a backseat to Scanlen and Wallace in the third act along with Davis, the Animal Kingdom film star sneaks back in to give one of the most achingly true, tender performances of his entire career in the film's gorgeous, succinct coda. 

A major directorial debut from the veteran small screen helmer, in Babyteeth, Murphy battles against the conventions of the women's weepie subgenre. A study of contrasts, the film is a fervent reminder that as prepared as we think we are for love, life, or death – since we have no idea how we'll deal with anything until it actually happens – it's better to have as much back-up as we possibly can.

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