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Shannon Murphy Babyteeth


Babyteeth | Review

Babyteeth | Review

Death Comes for the Ozzie Frippet: Murphy Looks to Love Amidst Dysfunction in Cancer Melodrama

Shannon Murphy Babyteeth ReviewPrecocious teens represent a burgeoning film subgenre all to themselves—and precocious teens with cancer (or other parameter defining diseases) seem to be a popular new mutation amongst themselves. Thankfully, Australia’s Shannon Murphy attempts to give us something bit darker (even as its overly basted in its own quirkiness) with her debut Babyteeth—a love story, a cancer story and a family-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown story.

Finer subtleties and more unpleasant physical realities may be brushed under the rug, but a script from first time scribe Rita Kalnejais allows Essie Davis to take another potentially familiar role and turn it into something pricelessly tantalizing. Leaning towards levity rather than desperation, Murphy lurches too defiantly against objectivity regarding the choices and privileges afforded the troubled parents facing the inevitable death of their child, to a degree where, sometimes, the narrative dips precariously into schmaltz, guiding the audience towards the cinematic cliché of easily won closure and resolution.

Sixteen-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlan) has fallen in love with twenty-three-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace), a destitute drug addict who’s currently homeless without any prospects of a future. It turns out Milla is in the same boat, as the cancer in her body has returned, causing a swift decline in health. Her parents, the once noted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and the bored therapist Henry (Ben Menelsohn) entertain Milla’s wish to pursue Moses despite his problematic behaviors, both of them grappling with the reality of their daughter’s potential demise.

Murphy delineates transitions through the assistance of loose chapter headings, meant to pivot the narrative easily towards understanding the sometimes-inexplicable choices made by Milla and her parents. Despite these mood markers, there’s a certain emotional estrangement in the presentation of Milla, and Eliza Scanlan takes pains to avoid presenting her as a vessel of constant morbidity. And yet, Milla is never afforded the generous empathetic avalanches bestowed upon Davis and Mendelsohn (or even Wallace’s Moses, whose future with or without Milla is utterly dire). An aside with a callous classmate in the women’s restroom at school is one of several instances where Milla’s personality becomes more insular, even inscrutable. Paired with a notable lack of physical depreciation, only a shaved head gives a real indication of a body in cellular turmoil—and so, like many of the American counterparts to Milla, where young women’s lives are claimed by an insidious disease, Murphy’s presentation hovers around the same realm of something like Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), where an acid-scarred Liza Minelli finds her medical issues define her relationships with those around her.

However, Murphy stages several moments conjuring those increasingly rare cinematic moments capturing the essence and excitement of life, such as a party Milla attends with Moses after sneaking out of the house, which (as unlikely as its presentation seems) affords cinematographer Andrew Commis (Angel of Mine, 2019) the chance to display a blurred, drunken, neon infused dance number which throbs with the ache of excitement. But shouldering the brunt of the film’s heavy emotional lifting is a fantastic Essie Davis (also seen this year outperforming all her co-stars in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang). Her pill-popping, shit-talking, dreams-deferred woman on the verge recalls the grandiosity of Gena Rowlands—so it’s too bad the affable Ben Mendelsohn is too often painted in more cliched tones (he gets to do what all middle-aged men do, lightly flirt with the obnoxious pregnant young woman next door played by Emily Barclay, one of Babyteeth’s oft-sashays into forced quirk).

Toby Wallace ends up being a nice tonic for the mix of characters, but again, the realities of his degrading situation aren’t really developed or seriously contended with, and something more interesting (and adult) would have kept the suggestion of his character’s potential ulterior motivations.

For a debut film, Murphy attempts a fine balance and often succeeds—but at least for its first two acts allows for an interesting mix of characters to bounce off one another before they’re tossed into a melting pot resolution.

Reviewed on November 21st at the 2019 AFI Film Festival – New Auteurs Program. 117 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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