Best known for her work on the acclaimed TV show Killing Eve, Shannon Murphy definitely leaves a mark with her feature film directorial debut Babyteeth, a sharp and stinging coming-of-age dramedy.
Written by first-time screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, the Australian independent film avoids most of the trite and timeworn tropes of the terminally ill teen subgenre and boasts a talented cast eager to sink their proverbial teeth into meatier, more compelling fare.
Eliza Scanlen (2019’s Little Women) stars as 16-year-old Milla Finlay, the cancer-stricken daughter of Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel), a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis, The Babadook), a retired concert pianist.
Although they are clearly a loving family, the specter of Milla’s impending death has taken its toll: Henry is somewhat detached and all-too-eager to ply his increasingly desperate wife with an array of antidepressants and other drugs.
Meanwhile, Milla continues to maintain a semblance of normalcy, attending her private school and private violin lessons. While she’s waiting for a train to get from one to the other, Moses (Toby Wallace, the Aussie soap opera Neighbours) literally crashes into her and shakes up her careful existence. A live-wire 23-year-old drug addict and dealer, Moses isn’t exactly the sort of teen heartthrob that typically inhabits these movies, but Milla falls hard for him, rat-tail haircut, facial tattoos, manic hustler energy and all.
Estranged from his single mother and adored younger brother because of his drug problem, Moses isn’t exactly the type of guy that most parents want for their precious daughters, no matter how sturdy or fragile they may be. And Moses doesn’t quite have a heart of gold; although he does care for Willa, he knows there’s money and drugs that can be acquired by hanging around her and her family.
Despite her lack of experience with romantic relationships, though, Willa isn’t naive to Moses’ faults, and she’s in love with him anyway. And given her condition, her parents are painfully aware that her first love will probably be her last, so concessions are made, although not without misgivings.
For the first half of Babyteeth, both writer and director struggle to find their form, getting too painstakingly quirky with the humor, introducing thinly drawn secondary characters (including Emily Barclay as the ditzy pregnant new neighbor who can never find her dog) and getting caught up in the cutesy chapter headings. But by the film’s second half, the performances, storytelling and dialogue have become finely honed, leading up to the heart-ripping climax.
Between the nuanced performances she taps from her sterling performers and the dynamic visual highlights she threads through the narrative – the reflections through the green-tinted family pool, the evocative dancing lights at a rave, the pristine beaches on a seaside holiday – Murphy makes a promising first impression with Babyteeth.