There’s a beautiful interlude toward the end of Australian stage and TV director Shannon Murphy’s first feature, Babyteeth, in which Milla, a gravely ill teenager played with a mix of jangled nerves, touching hope and piercing sadness by Eliza Scanlen, picks up her violin at a friends-and-family Christmas lunch, accompanying her mother at the piano. A lovely unforced poignancy emerges in that moment from the warm connection between the two women, as well as the faces around the table, all suspended in quiet contemplation. The camera finally observes rather than agitates, and the characters are allowed just to be, instead of being wound up like manic Duracell bunnies.
Murphy and her actors from that point on become attuned to the melancholic inner lives of the people onscreen and the movie benefits immeasurably, with a series of concluding chapters that deepen our access to the characters’ emotional experience and make the loss they face genuinely affecting.
But for a considerable stretch of this two-hour movie, which screenwriter Rita Kalnejais developed from her own play with mixed success, Murphy pushes too hard. She piles on the quirks in a series of short chapters with cutesy titles displayed onscreen in candy-colored text, nudging her actors to favor strained eccentricity over character integrity. The film can loosely be tied into a lineage of Australian cinema from the late ’80s and into the ’90s, centered around idiosyncratic young female protagonists who march to the beat of their own drum — Sweetie, Celia, Muriel’s Wedding, Love Serenade — even if the endgame for Murphy is more sorrowful.
Babyteeth carefully avoids getting sucked into the maudlin trap of other films that have told similar stories, like Gus Van Sant’s gratingly precious Restless. But often, you want to grab hold of everyone involved and give them a good shake, persuading them to calm down long enough to show some real feeling beneath all the over-caffeinated, heightened realism.
The first time that happens is a full half-hour into the movie, when 15-year-old Milla’s vulnerability is suddenly, starkly exposed after she starts chemo and a fellow student insists on trying on her wig in a school restroom. Instead of jittering about ceaselessly to convey the instability swirling around Milla using the most literal visual means possible, Andrew Commis’ camera at last pauses to investigate what she’s feeling. This creates a first moment of emotional honesty in a movie that for too long smothers Milla’s pain and fear in self-conscious affectation.
That applies pretty much to all the characters, starting with her parents. It takes perverse skill to make two actors as gifted as Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn look bad. But the scene in which we first encounter Milla’s father, Henry, in the home office he uses as a shrink, and her mother, Anne, on his couch in a regular Tuesday session that segues to a quickie on his desk, is embarrassing.
As is often the case in the early action, the labored comedy and studied awkwardness completely miss the tonal mark. Neurotic Anne rattles around full of Xanax and Zoloft, while Henry has his own foibles, also getting distracted by flirtatious exchanges with Toby (Emily Barclay), the pregnant new neighbor across the street, who’s another bundle of oddball tics.
The key relationship that shapes Milla’s trajectory is with Moses (Toby Wallace), a druggy 23-year-old who’s been thrown out of his family home after what appears to have been a series of alarming episodes. He and Milla meet-cute, sort of, when he lurches out of nowhere on a Sydney station platform and almost knocks her in front of an incoming train. But she’s instantly attracted to the scruffy beanpole with his punky rat’s tail mullet and facial tats. When he breaks into her house at night, looking to steal meds, Milla insists he stay for breakfast. Asked by Henry if he has a job, Moses replies: “I’m not ready to be functional.”
The bulk of the action traces the stop-start progress of a romance that Henry and Anne initially are determined to halt, until they realize Moses might be their best shot at keeping Milla motivated and optimistic, irrespective of him being an unpredictable junkie. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” says Anne in an amusingly deadpan moment as she and Henry watch the young couple rolling around in the garden. There’s some anticipation created about Milla taking Moses to the school formal, but that scene never materializes. Instead, she starts questioning his motives while he reveals that he lacks the tools to handle her situation with sensitivity. Or maybe there’s more to him than it seems.
Alongside music choices employed to shape the mood or nudge the reality further off-kilter, the action returns frequently to Milla’s violin lessons with Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder). A music teacher of indeterminate Middle European origin, his function leans toward the tired trope of the cultural outsider with special insight. But the music scenes are engaging enough, helping to uncover depths Milla is only just discovering. The few random moments where she breaks the fourth wall with a quick direct-to-camera glance are less convincing, coming off like a poor Fleabag imitation.
The movie — like the performances of its small ensemble — works best when the director gets out of her own way, forgetting her aversion to clean, conventional narrative and giving the material breathing space to resonate. This finally happens on the spiral into pathos that most such stories inevitably take. The fact that Murphy hits those notes with a wrenching force that feels honestly earned and not at all lachrymose is all the more surprising given the artificial feel of so much that’s come before.
Some of the most effective moments in Babyteeth are also among its simplest, such as a brief chapter called “What the Dead Said to Milla,” in which Commis’ mercifully still camera catches her in introspective silence during the night. Best of all though is a coda that rewinds to a rare interlude of harmonious union for all the characters. It closes this movie about coming of age, loving and letting go with real confidence, promising more mature work down the track from the director, who is next signed up for Season 3 of Killing Eve.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Whitefalk Films
Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn, Edward Lau, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Michelle Lotters
Director: Shannon Murphy
Screenwriter: Rita Kalnejais
Producer: Alex White
Executive producer: Jan Chapman
Director of photography: Andrew Commis
Production designer: Sherree Philips
Costume designer: Amelia Gebler
Music: Amanda Brown
Editor: Steve Evans
Casting: Kirsty McGregor, Stevie Ray
Sales: Celluloid Dreams