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David Jenkins

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Babyteeth – first look review

Shannon Murphy's eloquent comic debut offers a unique take on terminal illness and drug addiction.

Yes, there are references to baby teeth in Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth, but don’t ask about their wider relevance. Schoolgirl Milla (Eliza Scanlen) claims to be a living medical aberration as she still has one of the little fellas lodged right at the back of her jaw, and it shows no sign of moving. And when it eventually does pop out, it makes for a symbolic marker in our heroine’s extremely eventful teenage life. Perhaps the relevance of teeth in this film is akin to the rings on a tree stump as, among other things, this is a story about the tempestuous relationship with have with our own bodies, and how they can sometimes grow at a different speed to our minds.

Milla has cancer and, in the film’s opening shot, is seen contemplating suicide while standing on the platform of a train station.  She doesn’t look particularly sad or depressed. More bored, or irritated. Before she’s been able to act out this dark fantasy, Toby Wallace’s Moses comes crashing into her life, as he barges past her while dashing for a train. He is covered in home-made tattoos, a sheen of grime and sports a rat tail and fluffy ’tache. He is constantly pie-eyed, and quickly befriends Milla with the view to fleecing her out of 50 dollars. But she is instantly smitten by him, happy to indulge his every selfish whim. Which is something her very concerned, very middle class parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), are not too happy with.

And so an oddball love story plays out, with Milla loving Moses, Moses loving drugs, Henry and Anna loving Milla, Henry also loving the pregnant woman who lives over the road and is always eating an ice lolly, Anna also loving drugs, and then everyone hating everyone, then everyone gradually falling back into love. And then Henry tries some drugs but doesn’t appear to love them. All the while, Milla attempts to exist beyond the bounds of her diminishing physical capabilities, desperate to present a veil of normalcy to gangly, idiot savant Moses in the hope that he might reciprocate the feelings she has for him.

Though not without its niggles, this is a notable first feature from Murphy, who exudes a supreme confidence in her deployment of crisp visuals and the lightly bifurcated manner in which she unfurls this eccentric yarn. Credit is also due to Rita Kalnejais whose sparky script delivers a heightened and funny take on banal realism that avoids “lines” and lessons. The cast are strong across the board and, crucially, they are all tapped into the director’s wavelength. Though it’s Scanlen who is the top trump here as the girl unwilling to accept the limitations of her own body, and wants nothing more than to dance, dance, dance. (She is a great dancer).

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Babyteeth, however, is the fact that it refuses to trot out the seen-a-million-times downward spiral of the decrepit junkie, or tabulate the gruelling coping strategies that come with a terminal illness. The focus is purely domestic, and the large majority of the film takes place in the plush family home, usually around the dinner table. There are no pleas for better drug treatment or more thorough cancer screening programmes. The drug takers in the film aren’t punished for their affliction, even if Murphy does make the point that life is harder to live in a state of intoxication.

It’s this overly careful approach which diminishes the final reel of the movie, as the most puzzling aspect is that it’s almost impossible to deduce Milla’s state of mind through her body language. It may be a statement on her relentless joie de vivre, but much of the time it is a little confusing. The finale is at once sudden and a little random, though a short epilogue provides one of the most moving moments, as Milla finally convinces her stoical father that Moses – in all his grimy, burn-out glory – means the absolute world to her.

Published 4 Sep 2019

Tags: Ben Mendelsohn Essie Davies Shannon Murphy Venice Film Festival

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