There’s something unusual in Shannon Murphy‘s directorial debut, Babyteeth, even when its premise about a terminally ill teenager finds a new breath in love is overly familiar, if not overused. The film, which went on winning 9 awards in Australian Academy Awards (AACTA) including Best Picture, exudes sentimentality in delivering the narrative, but never succumbs into the maudlin side-effects of it. There’s little to none overindulging sappy moment even when death always lurks closely behind the protagonist’s back. The story, written by Rita Kalnejais adapting her own stageplay, doesn’t quite believe in seizing the day before the moment’s gone forever, but it rather exuberantly celebrates what makes life worth living.
Amped up with high-profile ensemble of casts, Babyteeth has all the edge to deliver its delicate momentum. Eliza Scanlen (Little Women) leads as the terminally ill girl, Milla, the babyteeth—whose encounter with a runaway junkie, Moses (Toby Wallace) sets the unusually complicated dynamics in motion. On the other hand, Milla’s infatuation means something else for her desperate life whose sparks of life starts to fade. Her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, Rogue One), is a shrink seeking distractions from his early grief; meanwhile, Anna (Essie Davis, The Babadook), the mother, is under anti-depressant prescribed by her own husband. Under Murphy‘s direction, the film focuses not on the illness that drains the life of everyone, but on how the family works together, even without each other’s acknowledgement, to “cheat” the impending death and reflect on how to parent a dying teenage girl. One thing for sure, it takes more than challenging teen angst and mood swing.
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Babyteeth makes use of the perfect casting to defy expectation and deliver something unfamiliar amidst the familiar tropes. Casting Scanlen is inarguably intentional. She embodies similar character in Little Women and, for a moment, it seems like a typecast until it doesn’t. Milla is quite complicated; she doesn’t indulge in the maudlin sentimentality and instead chooses to fall into the merciless taste of love. With Scanlen portraying this character, it feels more ironic in all the good way, even when her character is surprisingly the most uninteresting character in this film. Davis portrays a mother that worries about uncertain future; it’s mirroring her character in The Babadook; but, the catalyst of her character is Mendelsohn with warmth unseen before. Both makes an unlikely couple, but their dynamic as compromising parent works to steer the story away from total melodrama. Compromising is what the characters are doing on screen and that’s what makes this story stand out because they actually reflect on what has happened and what would happen with their action.
The amount of compromising looks like no safe bet. Henry prescribes drugs for a junkie just to make him stay for the daughter; Moses finds a parental connection he’s looking for in Milla’s family; and Milla reconnects with his mother via music, something that the mother’s long abandoned. Those compromising is what separates it from other films of the similar theme. Steering away from the melodrama of the subject matter, Babyteeth focuses on the optimistic views of life-struggle even when they’re sometimes frustrating as the pace can be dire in the middle part. The ending, however, is a perfect closure that doesn’t overstay the welcome.