The ‘terminally ill love-struck teen’ story has been done so many times that it forms its own genre. A recent addition is the Australian-made Babyteeth (2019). Using all the basic ingredients found in coming-of-age tales, it mixes them in a quirky and unexpected way to produce a powerful story that transcends the formula.
It has a simple and linear narrative frame. Fifteen-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlan) is in partial remission and trying to be as normal as possible despite the absence of normality in her life. Her substance-abusing parents are barely holding it together. Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis) a once-promising pianist; both are frozen between hope and grief. One day, the teenager comes home from school with an irreverent, homeless 23-year old drug-dealer called Moses (Toby Wallace) and shatters what’s left of her parent’s middle-class world.
The story unfolds in bits and pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle that can only be appreciated when the final picture is seen from a distance. For example, the opening scene introduces the theme of random chaos: out of nowhere, Moses almost pushes Milla into the path of a train, then he gallantly uses his dirty shirt to wipe her bleeding nose. Blood bonding with a stranger who then asks for money is an odd spark for romance. Another scene prepares viewers to expect the unexpected. Henry and Anna are playing-out clinician and patient: Anna sits on his office desk, and Henry chats while eating a sandwich as he unzips his trousers and performs a conjugal act of zero eroticism.
The film deliberately challenges our sense of right and wrong, and leaves several narrative threads dangling. For example, despite a botched attempt by Moses to rob them, they ask him to move into their home, promising access to prescription drugs: Milla is now emotionally connected to him and it will be the only chance for her to experience sexual love. The link between random chaos and mortality permeates the story. In many scenes, the viewer is being asked: ‘what would I do if it were me?’
The intensity of the film rests entirely on Milla. While it has a strong supporting cast in the roles of Moses, Henry, and Anna, none of them are particularly likeable, which leaves every inch of emotional space for Milla. Her cheery wide-eyed optimism, defiance, and yearning to feel everything she possibly can before her clock stops makes this story both gut-wrenching and a tear-jerker. Several times she looks directly to camera, poking a hole through the ‘fourth-wall’, as if to remind to us that we are all just passing through. It is a message that is hard to forget.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Stars: Eliza Scanlan, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace