117 Mins(4 ½ out of 5)
Reviewed by: Sam Hollis
Though movies sometimes desensitise us to pain, when strong characters we connect with suffer, so too do we. Babyteeth expresses pain in its most brutal forms while still reaching to be entertaining, ethereal, and even silly. And when it all collides, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Terminally ill high school student Milla (Eliza Scanlen) breaks out of her shell when she falls madly in love. Moses (Toby Wallace) is 23 and a small-time drug dealer. Needless to say, Milla’s parents, who are already grappling with the inevitability of their daughter’s illness, do not approve.
In many ways, this one broke me. Not only does director Shannon Murphy zero in on Milla’s struggles with disarming vulnerability, but she gives the same attention to all those connected to her. Moses is cut off from his family, homeless and desperate. Milla’s mum Anna (Essie Davis) is abusing prescription drugs to cope, while her dad Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) struggles to feel at all. Watching them barely keep it together, clawing at each other left and right, is crushing.
None of this works if we don’t believe Milla – thankfully, Scanlen puts it all on the line. From moment to moment, whether engulfed by love, pain, laughter, or the urge to dance, the actress paints a complete picture of who this person is. Her story moves quickly, but Murphy refuses to relinquish quiet, meditative moments that colour in the lines, like when Anna and Milla perform music for a transfixed table of guests.
Right from the opening scene, the romance of Milla and Moses is beautifully portrayed. The film avoids taking it to troublesome places, instead slowly establishing an intense companionship. The anger their bond sparks in others, and the heartache they each experience navigating the ups and downs of a first love, lead to a climactic blow that leaves a hole in my chest.
Babyteeth is visually gripping, darkly funny, and incredibly well acted, but above all else emotionally raw. While certain stylistic choices feel unnecessary, they are nothing but speedbumps on an otherwise flawless journey.