Last year I spent some time trawling back over the history of Australian cinema, a process with mixed outcomes. It was exhilarating to rediscover the way local movies have captured moments of national anxiety and brash self-confidence. On the other hand, the boldness of past efforts, particularly during the 1970s, casts a withering light on the failures of our present-day film industry. For over a decade only a handful of Australian movies have managed to transcend mediocrity.
And so it is a pleasure to declare that Shannon Murphy’s debut feature, Babyteeth, is a welcome siting of an endangered species: a quality Australian production. Let’s not get carried away – Citizen Kane it ain’t – but Babyteeth is an accomplished ‘small’ film. The story it tells is poignant and engaging, blending drama, humour and sorrow in such a way that the narrative never lurches too far in one direction. The acting is excellent, the direction sure-handed. Rita Kalnejais has supplied plausible characters and a script devoid of wanton banalities and clichés. There’s also an appealing quirkiness that keeps us guessing from one scene to the next.
The focus of the story is Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a 16-year-old schoolgirl battling cancer. This might sound like a recipe for a conventional weepie, but there are plenty of twists, beginning with Milla’s infatuation with Moses (Toby Wallace), a homeless ne’er-do-well with a drug habit, met by chance at a suburban railway station.
Moses is not the boy you’d want your daughter to bring home, especially when she’s dealing with a life-threatening illness, but Milla’s parents are not standard middle-class suburbanites. Her father, Henry (Ben Mendelson), is a psychiatrist with a raft of personal issues. The most pressing of these is Milla’s mother, Anna (Essie Davis), a former musician who now exists on a steady diet of opioids supplied by her husband.
Anna and Henry try to be understanding vis-a-vis Moses, but his delinquent behaviour makes him an ongoing problem. Milla, for her part, proves to be unusually strong-willed, being tolerant of Moses’s shortcomings but ready to be angry when he betrays her trust. She claims to like him because he’s fearless, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s the fearless one. With death peering over her shoulder she wants to experience as much life as she can.
Through a series of reversals and mishaps we watch as Milla, her parents, and Moses hammer out a working relationship. The dilemma facing Anna and Henry is how to lay down rules for their wilful daughter without exacerbating her condition. Is Moses ultimately a good or bad thing for Milla? Perhaps both.
Milla’s troubles can’t be ignored but the parents have plenty of their own. Anna is hardly less of a drug addict than Moses, while Henry is also partial to self-medication. Furthermore, his middle-aged sexual frustrations have brought about a fixation with Toby (Emily Barclay), their unmarried, heavily pregnant 20-something neighbour, with all the tats and foul language so characteristic of her generation. She even has a dog named Henry.
We see a different side of Anna through the eyes of her former accompanist – Milla’s music teacher, Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder). She once had talent but has lost her way, although it’s not clear if this is because of Milla’s illness, Henry’s feckless personality, or other factors.
Meanwhile, Moses keeps growing as a personality while claiming that he’s “not ready to be functional”. Toby Wallace shows real skill in the way he negotiates this metamorphosis, which seems to creep up on the character unexpectedly. Indeed, one of the best aspects of this film is that the four lead actors are given roles that allow them to explore a broad range of emotions.
Babyteeth should be a career launching pad for Wallace and his co-star, Eliza Scanlen, although the latter is already on the circuit. Still only 21 years-old, Scanlen has appeared in Greta Gerwig’s vibrant remake of Little Women, and the HBO series, Sharp Objects. Her most recent brush with fame was less satisfying, when, as a director, she won a prize for the best short film at the recent Sydney Film Festival, only to be accused of racism by the self-appointed guardians of cultural purity.
This resulted in an open letter signed by leading members of the Australian film industry denouncing the “public shaming” of Scanlen’s film, Mukbang. It was a refreshingly quick rebuke to an ideological fundamentalism that sees a racist under every rock. America has plunged head-first into this cauldron of stupidity. Can Australia resist its siren song?
If you’re the politically hyper-sensitive type there’s plenty to give offence in almost any movie. Does Babyteeth give us a bad impression of cancer victims? Drug addicts? Psychiatrists? If filmmakers – and more worryingly, film funders – start to fret about every form of micro-discrimination found in a movie treatment, local features will be fewer and even duller.
To make a movie as good as Babyteeth requires a touch of creative daring, a willingness to take risks and stretch the boundaries of a genre – in this case, the ‘doomed teen’ sub-genre, represented by movies such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and The Fault in Our Stars (2104). Compared with these films, Babyteeth displays a remarkable lack of sentimentality. Shannon Murphy has given us the movie a mid-career Luis Buñuel might have made, had he been asked to do something about love and death in the Australian suburbs.
Directed by Shannon Murphy
Written by Rita Kalnejais
Starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Zack Grech
Australia, rated M, 118 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 July, 2020