From Jane Campion’s breakout Sweetie, to more mainstream fare like Muriel’s Wedding, the dysfunctional family is the backbone of Australian cinema, and Babyteeth is no different. “I don’t think the world’d be this big, or weird, if we were obsessed with functionality,” observes young drug dealer Moses (the compelling Toby Wallace), as if contemplating the subgenre in which he’s found himself.
On paper, Babyteeth sounds potentially excruciating. A teen cancer drama based on a play featuring romance, rebellion and a collection of colorful wigs, it seems like the kind of film in which a ukulele could be produced at any moment for a quick injection of whimsy. And yet, although some scenes can be ticked off your Teen Cancer Weepie checklist, Murphy manages to subvert sentimentality in favor of an untidy but powerful emotional resonance.
While on a train station platform on the way to school, Milla (Eliza Scanlen) collides with Moses, a rakishly handsome man with spaced-out eyes, a face tattoo, and a rat’s tail hairstyle. Murphy shoots handheld, and the camera drifting around them mirrors the wooziness of first love as he aids her with a sudden nosebleed, cradling her head gently, like a strange homage to Trevor Howard removing the grit from Celia Johnson’s eye in Brief Encounter. Milla is a good girl from a well-to-do family. Henry, her psychiatrist father (Ben Mendelsohn, working in his native Australia for the first time in nine years), and Anna, her classical pianist mother (The Babadook’s Essie Davis) are unsurprisingly horrified by their daughter’s new infatuation. But as Milla’s leukemia escalates the whole family, Moses included, are forced to grapple with fear, frustration, and unlikely joy.
Nothing is as simple as it appears in Babyteeth. Milla’s parents are quick to ban Moses from seeing her after one disastrous family dinner because of his age and obvious drug addiction. And yet Anna is kept on a cocktail of pills by Henry, who acts as both therapist and husband, disengaged and distracted in both roles except to chastise her for neglecting her medication. It’s easy to sigh and hang-wring along with them as Milla falls head-over-heels for Moses and they begrudgingly allow him to see her. Innocence-shattering heartbreak looks inevitable, but his drug addiction hits closer to home than Henry and Anna can initially imagine, with Moses having the capacity to surprise them, and even himself.
Eliza Scanlen, having made a chilling impression in another teeth-centric role in the miniseries Sharp Objects, and soon to play the ill-fated Beth in Little Women, is impressive here. As a teenage girl facing the end of her life before it barely began, she lends both pathos and humor to a character that might well have been mawkish. Her accelerated coming-of-age is mapped by her hair: the long, auburn ponytail of the schoolgirl, the messy crop shorn by Moses, the Barbie-blonde wig that’s ruined by a classmate who can’t resist taking a selfie wearing it, a blue-green bob that announces its own falseness. One night of adolescent defiance sees her sneak out to a party with a more natural blonde wig, where she has a transcendent encounter with a strange, hairless dancer as if she has stepped outside her own body to look her illness in the eye.
Anchored by Ben Mendelsohn’s understated, affecting performance, Babyteeth eventually sheds its quirkiness to deliver an emotional punch to the gut that proves itself to be a truly accomplished and confident directorial debut. Like real life, it’s a bit unevenly plotted, but it also forgives bad decisions, embraces the dysfunctionality of a family muddling through, and defies expectations to find human, mundane hope in the midst of tragedy.