an outstanding feature from a new director to watch in 2020
M, 118 Minutes
Dendy, Palace Electric
Review by © Jane Freebury
Babyteeth has more than a few things going for it, including a terrific ensemble cast, cinematographer and director. Yet this family drama about a teenager with terminal cancer risks meeting a bit of resistance from audiences who may decide the subject is not for them.
It really shouldn’t deter them. This is an outstanding new Australian film, not to be missed. The director Shannon Murphy has suddenly emerged as an exciting new talent whose name appears on Variety’s top ten directing talents to watch in 2020.
Up to this point, Murphy has been making short films and working in television, here and overseas. She has distinguished herself on the hit television series Killing Eve, directing two recent episodes, balancing the droll, bleak humour and bizarre goings-on with great aplomb. I thought the way she handled Villanelle’s return visit to the family home in a Russian backwater hit just the right notes.
Babyteeth, her feature film debut, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, is never less than pitch perfect either. It’s about sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) who is receiving treatment for a rare cancer that will kill her. But she is still out and about. She continues to attend school, when she feels up to it, and her violin classes, and has her sights on the school formal.
Set during the time when the Finlay family prepares for impending loss, Babyteeth balances the joy and the fear, the grim with the humorous, and the mundane and the fantastical in life’s contradictions.
In the film’s arresting opening scenes, Milla is standing at the railway station one day, minding her own business, when a young bloke slams into her, giving her a nose bleed. After gallantly wiping her face with the shirt off his back, Moses (Toby Wallace) is in the next instant asking for money. She hands over $50.
What’s more, she takes Moses home to meet the parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna Finlay (Essie Davis). The visit culminates in a droll dinner scene with the two couples sitting opposite each other at table. If it wasn’t weird enough, Anna has mixed up her meds and is high.
Moses quickly recognises an opportunity. It isn’t long before he is back, performing a break-and-enter to help himself to the prescription drugs that psychiatrist Henry prescribes and Anna uses.
her parents are trapped but relent, against their better judgement
Milla’s parents are trapped. They want to protect their vulnerable, fragile daughter but at the same time they want to allow her the chance to experience life. They capitulate to Milla’s wishes and, against their better judgement, invite Moses in.
In every conceivable way, the young, drug-dealing petty crim would appear to be a dreadful companion for Milla, but she is determined to have him around. The relationship develops through various stages, announced with inter-titles suggestive of diary entries, and Moses begins to reveal a better self.
It takes a special directorial talent to tell a story like this, and special skills to bring out the best in all the actors, each so individual, in this ensemble piece.
It is a good to see Emily Barclay (Suburban Mayhem) make an appearance as the very pregnant young mother who lives across the street from the Finlays. Her dog is always going missing, she always seems to be eating an ice cream and her function is to hint at the fragility in the Finlays’ marriage.
as married partners, Davis and Mendelsohn are beautifully matched
Essie Davis (recently in The True History of the Kelly Gang) and Ben Mendelsohn (an international star ever since Animal Kingdom) are beautifully matched as married partners. Wallace and Scanlen (Little Women) are also marvellous together as the two fragile young people. All the lead performances are superb, though I would have to say that Mendelsohn excels himself once again.
The ensemble cast is one thing, but Babyteeth would not be the film it is without the contribution of cinematographer Andrew Commis (Beautiful Kate, The Rocket)
Whether his camera is rolling in tight, intimate close up or goes wide to take in the night lights of Sydney or a virgin beachscape, the beauty and poignancy of his images was constantly telling. The camera pausing on the eggshell of Milla’s perfect, shaven head said so much.
Babyteeth had its world premiere in official competition at the Venice International Film Festival last year. It’s one of the best Australian films we have seen in some time.
First published in the Canberra Times on 26 July 2020
Featured image: Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth. Courtesy IFC Films