Babyteeth review – a luminously brilliant tale of illness and young love

A brilliant debut from Shannon Murphy that feels like the work of an old master, announcing a truly thrilling new filmmaking talent

There are a lot of small, perfect moments in the astonishingly accomplished Babyteeth, but one of them truly stands out as the encapsulation of the whole film. As a terminally ill teenage girl and her mother celebrate what is likely to be the girl’s last birthday with a beautiful piece of classical music, one of the guests has to be rapidly shuffled out as she goes into labour. No matter how solemn or serious the situation, life, in all its unpredictable chaos, demands to break through. It’s a message conveyed with thrilling, heart-wrenching skill by first-time director Shannon Murphy, who emerges with this film as an already fully-formed talent, marrying brilliant style with an ensemble of barnstorming performances.

The girl at the heart of the above scene is Milla (Eliza Scanlen), having to grapple with her own mortality in her last year of high school and slowly coming untethered. Bringing her back down to earth is the arrival of Moses (Toby Wallace), a verging-on-homeless 23 year old who Milla is magnetically attracted to from the moment they meet. Milla’s parents are, of course, dubious about this new arrangement, but the happiness and relief that Moses brings Milla starts to slowly ingratiate him in to the family.

Scanlen and Wallace share an electrifying chemistry. The strength of their connection is obvious enough to stop their relationship from being entirely defined by the age gap, while writer Rita Kalnejas, adapting her own play, does a phenomenal job of capturing the intricacies of an exciting romance. Everything Milla and Moses say to one another is, somehow, the right thing to say, their love for one another snowballing in every encounter.

This focus on the simple process of relationships is what makes Babyteeth feel so achingly, joyously real. Nothing is solved in a single grand gesture, and for every two steps forward there’s a step back, neatly mirroring the cycle of remission and relapse that accompanies Milla’s illness.

Weathering the storm with Milla are her loving but dysfunctional and self-medicating parents, played by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis. Davis is on similarly good form here as she was in the superlative True History of the Kelly Gang earlier in the year and it’s such a treat to have a full-force Mendelsohn performance on our screens again.

At his best, Mendelsohn is easily one of the finest actors working today, but he’s been coasting a little in recent years, turning up as sneering villains in various blockbusters. Here, as a man dealing with both a dying daughter and the existential anguish of having the same name as his neighbour’s dog, he’s as good as he’s been since Mississippi Grind, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Babyteeth is often a very funny film, brimming with life and vibrancy, but it always leaves room for the tragic gravity of Milla’s situation to really hit home. One exchange in particular between Milla and her dad is so understatedly wrenching that it will leave any audience in floods of tears.

While occasional homage is paid to the story’s theatrical origins, Murphy and Kalnejas keep things consistently ambitious and cinematic, with smart uses of locations, immersive sound design, and a jaw-dropping set-piece at a house party. It’s so rare to find a film that brings together all its elements so harmoniously and makes its characters and their emotions feel so alive, rarer still that such a film is a feature debut. In Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth introduces us to a luminous new talent.

Babyteeth is in cinemas from August 14

Where to watch

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