Babyteeth is a coming-of-age film that is eternally young. It never quite reaches the threshold of adulthood, of responsibility, of connections beyond the immediate.
Image: Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Based on the play by Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth is director Shannon Murphy's feature film debut that plays off fresh talent and established Australian masters, to create a bittersweet and brilliantly fresh journey through turbulent relationships. Particularly, these revolve around a terminally-ill teenage girl, her parents, and her new drug-addicted boyfriend.
The film is a series of sensations wrapped up in a bombardment of emotions. Every aspect of the film—the lights, the sounds, the colours, the performances—manages to be at once hard and soft. There are alternations between deep cuts and light bruises, which toe the line between vibrancy and melancholia. The mixture of vivid, electric colours and dark, foreboding subject matter creates an odd effect in which you feel both comforted and on edge.
A string quartet's gravelly rendition of Golden Brown opens the film, feeling lulling and familiar. Then suddenly—the music stops. It happens often throughout the film. The music will be following the characters on screen, pulling the audience in to hear what they hear, experience the music and the joy of it, and it will then suddenly cut.
It fits the tone of the film—somewhere between melodrama and happiness. It's an insight into exactly who Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is. Her life, in the beginning, is frankly quite plain. She goes to school, to her music lessons, and it is quiet, sheltered, and uneventful. Her life is not so much a series of moments as it is an endless drone of motion. She stands alone, listening, waiting, uncomfortable, until Moses (Toby Wallace) comes literally crashing into her.
Moses himself is hard to pin down. His motives are skewed and his general demeanour is messy, but underneath the odd way he moves and speaks, he is charming. It's more due to Wallace's performance than the script, which leaves a lot of Moses unexplained, but it's clear that he cares for Milla in a way she has never felt cared about before.
Eliza Scanlen gives a brilliant performance as she perfectly captures a girl who begins to viscerally feel for the first time. She understands and brings to life the energy of somebody who suddenly feels bold, carefree, and young, bubbling with raw emotion. It becomes quite normal to cheer for her despite her irrationality; instead of feeling sorry for her, you live with her. You hear the music she hears. When she dances—limbs flailing and without a thought or care—you want to dance as well. When she makes dumb decisions, you find yourself on the side of her parents—distressed, but also oddly happy for her.
Milla's parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) are simultaneously the best and worst parents Milla could have. They both have a whole host of emotional problems, lugging the weight of the world between them, filling the blank spaces of their lives with pain—but the opportunities that they create for disaster never happen. These easy pitfalls—the drug abuse, the relationship problems, the potential cheating, even Milla's illness—they never become the focal point of the film.
Instead, what matters is the relationships between the characters, pinned by the understated performances. In particular, Essie Davis breaks the audience's perception of who Anna should be. She's overmedicated, struggling, temperamental, unsure, but also so clearly a loving mother. She is overbearing, but with such genuine love that it does not matter. The music that lies in her also lies in Milla, and, chapter by chapter, the relationship between unwinds the tension that initially sits between the two.
The beauty of it almost overcomes the fact that the side characters are woefully underdeveloped and appear at random in different chapters of Milla's life. Each side character has a relationship with one of the four that is touched on, but never quite followed through.
The film itself is youthful—the colours are bright, saturated, overwhelming—but in a way which adds to joy, rather than detracts from it. Watching the kaleidoscope of colours across Milla's face at the party, the bright yellow of the Australian public transport system, the clever and cute chapter titles in funky blues and electric pinks ('Fuck This' and 'A Little Bit High' work just as well as 'It Didn't Feel Like a Love Story That Night' and 'The Dead Speak to Milla') make the film feel fresh. The chapter titles themselves push the story forward in a far better way—they skip the usual sentimental, tugging-at-the-heartstrings way of storytelling, especially for a subject that's been tackled before. If at times the plot feels long, it's more a stylistic choice than a fault in the machinery. If the way the film reaches its conclusion is dizzying and odd, it's a more faithful following of the dizzying, odd decisions we make in our youth.
If the film never quite reaches adulthood, that's okay. There's a reason behind it and, more often than not, that reason will satisfy.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor