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Film Review: “Babyteeth” Brings Fresh, Frenetic Energy to a Tired Genre

Film, poster: “Babyteeth”

Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.

When teenager Milla meets Moses, everything changes. Not only is Moses older, but he is also dealing with addictions that have identifiably left him rejected by his only family. But Milla’s problems are no simpler. Dealing with terminal cancer, Milla is determined to experience as much as she can before her time is up, forcing her parents to figure out how Moses can play into these final moments they have with her. And although this may sound like a cutout of the long line of independent teen films that have come before it, Babyteeth proves not only an impressive debut for director Shannon Murphy, but also a fresh and compelling take on the genre with its unique energy, complicated characters and performances, as well as determination to find love even in the heart of suffering.

Set against the backdrop of Australian suburbia, the film provides a collection of imperfect, yet sympathetic characters one might think could only be found in Australia. And while it perhaps fails to bring any closure to their individual problems, it provides a punctuated glimpse into the complexity of their lives in this small moment in time that feels fully in line with Milla’s perspective. The performances match this complexity: Essie Davis (The Babadook) and Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as the parents, for example, are in full control of their emotions, which constantly teeter from one extremity to another. The real performances to watch, however, are those of its rising stars Eliza Scanlen (Little Women) and Toby Wallace (Acute Misfortune), who portray our central love duo Milla and Moses, respectively.  Both distinguish themselves with a similar sort of uncontainable energy and mature naturalism that makes their chemistry feel tangible even when they’re physically separated onscreen.

Eliza Scanlen as “Milla” and Toby Wallace as “Moses” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films.

The handheld camera movements and deep colors help capture the realistic messiness of their world. The writing and direction, moreover, seem to have complete control over the internal chaos, knowing perfectly how to regulate its overwhelming emotions by understanding when to reel itself back in. It is in many of these moments, often the quieter moments of the film, that we are able to understand these characters best. Without them needing to say anything, we can see past their worst and best moments and find empathy for them as nuanced individuals who are each fighting for the version of themselves that they want to be in a world that doesn’t seem to allow them to do that.

Although it feels like a fresh entry into the coming-of-age genre, it does, unfortunately, maintain some of that genre’s more grating characteristics. I was unsure that its breakage of the fourth wall and generous use of text on screen, for example, were ever truly justified. The former is used quite sparingly, almost so much so that it may be thought of as a trick of the mind, which perhaps may make it more forgivable. The latter, however, is used far too liberally, never truly providing any insight into the story and not consistently edgy enough to be funny. But, of course, these sorts of trivial things are quickly forgotten with a film such as this, as charming as the characters at its heart.

Essie Davis as “Anna” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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