A romance with a terminally ill teen is practically a subgenre within the universe of young adult novels and films, often weepy, often tender, and often dwelling a lot on the illness itself. “Babyteeth,” a new release from IFC Films and the debut feature from director Shannon Murphy, is none of those things.
“Babyteeth” centers around Milla (Eliza Scanlan), a teenager terminally ill with cancer. She’s waiting for the train on her way home from school one day when Moses (Toby Wallace) literally crashes into her. Milla comes from a typical middle class suburban family; her father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, and her mother Anna (Essie Davis) a pianist. Moses, on the other hand, is a twenty-four year old drug dealer who is drifting after his mother kicked him out of her house. Moses represents both the chaos and freedom that Milla lacks in her own sheltered life, and she is almost immediately drawn to him, as her parents try to discourage her from associating with him. What proceeds is less a straightforward plot and more a series of vignettes as Milla and her family confront pain and love head-on.
Nothing about “Babyteeth,” particularly Milla and Moses’ relationship, is romanticized. Moses initially hangs around Milla not so much because he loves her, but so he can pilfer the drugs she’s on as part of her treatment. Henry even offers to write more prescriptions for Moses in exchange for him staying close to Milla because he makes Milla happy. Moses and Milla’s scenes together are alternatively brutal and affectionate, bolstered by the outstanding performances of the two leads. Wallace bring some charm to a character it could be easy to feel apathy toward. Scanlan, meanwhile, continues to prove that she is someone whose career we should watch out for (you may remember her from Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” last year, in which she played another sickly young person; Milla is certainly the meatier of the two roles). She imbues Milla with a sense of wonder at the world around her as Moses introduces her to new experiences. She also perfectly straddles that feeling of being a child on the cusp of adulthood (symbolized by the single baby tooth she never grew out of)—a stage of life that she will never fully reach. She holds firm to her desires, while retaining a spirit of fun; Scanlan truly is nothing short of marvelous.
Equally marvelous are the supporting roles held by Davis and Mendelsohn. As Milla’s parents, they are also confronted by the immense hurdle life has thrown at them, as being forced to face the unimaginable also forces long-simmering conflict to the surface. As Anna tries to keep her daughter close, Henry finds himself occasionally drifting away, as he becomes interested in their very loud, very pregnant new neighbor Toby (played by the hilarious Emily Barclay). They each give their characters a great deal more complexity than you’d expect. Neither of them are the textbook strict parental figures; they each get to be alternatively serious, funny, hysterical, loving, overwhelmed. They may well be career best performances from both Davis and Mendelsohn, particularly the latter, who lets his character’s pain show through in the most devastating ways toward the end of the movie.
“Babyteeth” is a stellar debut feature for Murphy, who worked from Rita Kalnejais’ screenplay based on her play of the same name. The film possesses a feeling of timelessness, giving you the sense that this story could take place in, and these characters could exist at anytime, anywhere. The use of a handheld camera for the bulk of filming allows for an even more intense feeling of intimacy with the characters on screen.
“Babyteeth” is at times comical, at times sweet, at times seems like it’s ripping your heart out. It differentiates itself from comparable stories in that it doesn’t pit Milla against her illness as if it’s some great battle. When the end of the film comes, there isn’t some grand emotional climax (I mean, in a way there kind of is, but probably not in the way you’re thinking); it’s so understated it’s jarring, but appropriately so. “Babyteeth” isn’t about a girl who has cancer; it’s about a girl who happens to also have cancer. It’s raw and intense and messy and imperfect, but that raw intensity and messy imperfection are what make it so good.
“Babyteeth” will be available to watch on demand on June 19th on the following platforms: iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation, Xbox, Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner, Brighthouse), Verizon Fios, Altice (Optimum), Cox, DirecTV, AT&T, Bend Broadband, Buckeye, Guadalupe Valley, Hotwire Communications, Metrocast, Suddenlink, WOW Internet Cable, RCN, Midcontinent Communications
Runtime: 118 minutes. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.