TL;DR – This is a film that is both funny and deeply sad, immediately captivating yet also uncomfortable to watch, full complete yet broken characters
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
When I walked in to see Babyteeth, I had no idea I was walking into. Sure, from the wigs I assumed it had something to do with cancer, it also had Ben Mendelsohn, so at the very least I was going to be entertained by that. However, nothing could prepare me for the emotional roller coaster that I would be taken on from start to finish.
So to set the scene, Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is preparing for her last day at school for a while as soon she would be starting chemotherapy as her cancer had returned. While she is waiting to get on the train, someone crashes into her from behind. Moses (Toby Wallace) had just been kicked out of home due to his drug addiction. They run off to get her hair cut, and Milla brings him home to meet her parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). It goes about as well as you expect it would.
I do feel that I have to preface my review with the note that moments in this film are painful to watch. So difficult that you want to turn away from the screen because the pain is too raw to bear. I say this because I feel people are going to come away with very different feelings about this film, and I wanted to give a little forewarning before we dived into the review proper.
What made the film stand out for me were the characters. All of our core four (Milla, Moses, Henry & Anna) are both deeply flawed but completely realised people. I had first seen Eliza Scanlen in Little Women earlier this year, where she had the unenviable task of being the emotional core of the film. Here she has to do the same thing but more, she is the emotional core and the main narrative driver for the film. It is Milla’s story that we are seeing, the story of someone suffering and reaching out for something to hold on to. It is heartbreaking at times, and it only works as well as it does because of Eliza Scanlen’s acting.
On the other side of the spectrum is Moses. It could have been so easy for Moses to be a manic pixie dream boy, but he is more than that. He is a profoundly caring but broken person struggling with addiction and finding his place. The film hints at a darker past, but there is still humanity there. This also extends to Henry and Anna, as the parents you expect them to be the ones with everything together, but they to are broken. They are trying to stay strong in the face of it all and are failing into their own addictions. This causes them to stumble as much as everyone else. All of these characters feel like full rounded people with their flaws and strengths, that make the moments of levity rise higher, and the moments of sadness hit harder. Also, no one does a pratfall as well as Australian actors.
Where I think Babyteeth is masterful is in the way it addresses and manages tone. When you are dealing with a film that has so many different emotional moments, it is very easy to give your audience tonal whiplash. There are moments in this film where you laugh, not the nervous laugh of awkwardness, but the deep guttural laugh of pure hilarity. However, there are emotional moments that broke me, and the audience around me were left in tears. Managing both these emotions in the same film and having it work is something I would have expected from a long-time director and not someone who is making their theatrical debut. Part of what helps this work is film is structured around these segments almost smaller vignettes that help keep the narrative moving and also works as an emotional fire break. It is also a profoundly Australian film with bin chickens aplenty.
If I wanted to get nit-picky, yes there were a couple of things that did frustrate me in moments. The camera is rarely locked down, weaving in and around the action. This works thematically, but it does get distracting in places. It is also a film that wears its weirdness on its sleeve, but that can sometimes get a bit too much. However, none of these things ever detracted from the movie as a whole.
In the end, do we recommend Babyteeth? Well, this is a hard one to say. I found it personally to be an engaging and compelling film but also the subject matter is going to be difficult for many to watch. I am glad I did watch it, but I know that there are going to be a lot of people that will bounce off this one and that is okay. For me, it was beautifully acted, filled with complex characters, impeccably staged, wonderfully lit, and hit every emotion possible. If you liked Babyteeth, I would also recommend Lion.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Babyteeth
Directed by – Shannon Murphy
Screenplay by – Rita Kalnejais
Based on – Babyteeth by Rita Kalnejais
Music by – Amanda Brown
Cinematography by – Andrew Commis
Edited by – Stephen Evans
Production/Distribution Companies – Screen Australia, Entertainment One & Universal Pictures
Starring – Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Edward Lau & Zack Grech
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R