Review: Cancer drama 'Babyteeth' hits the right notes
Courtesy of IFC Films
Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy makes her directing debut with “Babyteeth,” an affectionate drama that manages to find balance with beauty and pain. “Sharp Objects” breakout Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, a troubled teenager whose the daughter of a wealthy psychiatrist and a notable pianist mother, but her life isn’t all luxury as she’s just been diagnosed with cancer.
“Babyteeth” doesn’t play up the cancer angle too much: opting to show the 15-year-old Millia - who still has a baby tooth - living her life as opposed to hospital waiting rooms and the inevitable chemo treatments. Instead, “Babyteeth” showcases Millia finding an unexpected courtship with Moses (Toby Wallace) - a tall and older boy with a face tattoo who's been kicked out of his parents’ house due to a drug addiction. That doesn’t stop the two from striking up something special and considering she is facing the end of her life, and he is not afraid to die (they met after he attempts to jump in front of a train) who knows if this will last, but for the moment it’s tender and pure. He’s invited back to meet Millia’s parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and, predictably, they don’t approve, but understanding Milla’s timeline, they let it happen anyway. This despite Moses being a kleptomaniac and ingesting any drugs he can get his hands on, however, it’s obvious he cares deeply for Millia and their passionate love story manages to keep the audience on its toes. For better or worse.
In the background, Anna and Henry are dealing with their own personal struggles: Davis’s Anna will try anything short of heroin to ease her manic depression and Mendelsohn’s Henry will prescribe her whatever she wants, even if it's not needed. Both actors are brilliant in their intimacy and demeanour and Murphy isn’t afraid to infuse her style in subtle nuances, stepping away and allowing certain moments to breath, even if the free-spirited missteps (there are long shots and takes of Millia just parading in clothing shops and storefronts) suggest certain moments could be scaled back.
Still, those are typical blemishes of a director’s first feature and considering the dark subject matter, there are moments where “Babyteeth” could really go for the easy and sentimental way out, but Murphy allows the power of the main narrative to speak for itself. We know the heartbreaking story that fuels “Babyteeth” isn’t practically new as they’re countless teen cancer stories out in the pathos - “The Fault In Our Stars,” “Five Feet Apart,” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” - but it approaches the story in an unconventional method, avoiding all prognosis on what Millia’s cancer actually is, long monologues where doctors describe the inevitable and we don’t see the parents breakdown because they know what’s coming. To its credit, “Babyteeth” tries to buck that mold and offer something original, no matter how imperfect it can be.
BABYTEETH will be available on VOD Friday June 19th.