Director: Shannon Murphy
Working time: 120 minutes
As anyone who has experienced the awkwardness of adolescence knows, the trials and tribulations of early life are contextual and relative. For years you can worry and constantly sweat in the trivialities of school, holidays, friends, hobbies, then come to the rude awakening of adulthood, stumble into the fog and try to be twenty with something unsafe, before you comfortably land on the overt cynicism and reduce the performance of your thirty years. In Babyteeth, the first film by Australian director Shannon Murphy and screenwriter Rita Calnegies, we see what happens when this future timeline is already closed and completely inaccessible, when tomorrow everything possible suddenly plunges into the visceral present and lands with all the urgency and high expectations of youthful passion.
Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) is a 16-year-old normal schoolgirl from Sydney, who also has cancer and has been diagnosed with death. After a deadly confrontation with a vagrant on the loose and small-scale drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), Milla decides to exercise caution and give in to the whims of young love. For her upper middle class parents, Henry (Ben Mendelssohn), a practicing psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis), a retired and severely treated classical pianist, Milla’s middle class and often erratic relationship with Moses soon becomes her worst nightmare when her quiet life in the suburbs begins to unfold around her.
At the director’s request, before I presented the film, Murphy described his approach to the cast and the characters as working on authenticity in their confusion. And this is one of Babyteeth’s strengths, which achieves grandiose realism through sometimes fascinating images of personal chaos and complex social interactions. While the story of the Renaissance itself is a gender convention, Murphy succeeds in linking Milla’s story on a regional level to Australia’s indigenous environment and telling the universal life experience of young women all over the world.
With filmmaker Andrew Kommis, Murphy (who has experience in theatre and television) brings a balanced visual style to the film, which fills the cityscape and party scenes with a vibrant palette of neon and kaleidoscope colours. The film tries to keep the audience within limits in order to prevent them from nestling in the film and becoming disoriented. Winding satellites with whimsical neighbours and colleagues sit just below the surface and never run over to disturb the main plot. For those with a keen eye, the film also contains some nice thematic features and symbolic details of the set, which help to bring the world of cinema together.
But it is the performances that shine in Baby Teeth that help carry the emotional weight of this tragic story to its heartbreaking finale and its completely manipulative intestinal punch code. Scanning is a magnet in Milla’s role and gives a young woman a feeling of vulnerability and rough grace, despite the seriousness of her position. Bringing Wallace to life for Moses is as convincing as the fact that the young actor completely disappears into his performance and conveys the essence of the film’s laconic and light-hearted humour. (Wallace received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actress or Best Actor at the 76th Venice International Film Festival for his film) The acting talents of heavyweights like Mendelssohn and Davis also make Henry and Anna feel like real parents, caught between their immortal love for Milla and the opportunity to offer her a rich, rewarding and dirty life with the fleeting moments that remain.
In general, Babyteeth is a heartbreaking and emotionally influential drama with a sound ending that stays on the screen long after the credits.
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