Movie review: Raw emotions and the mysteries of young love are at the root of ‘Babyteeth’
“Babyteeth,” a dramatic - sometimes melodramatic - and troubling film about a once close-knit Australian family that’s challenged by their daughter’s illness, wastes no time in setting up how its story is going to be told.
The four principal characters are Henry and Anna (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis), their high school-age daughter Milla (Eliza Scanlen), and the ne’er-do-well older boy Moses (Toby Wallace) who Milla meets and, against every wish her parents could imagine, falls for.
The relationship that develops between this quartet is presented in chapter form, with brightly colored letters splashing across the screen - “When Milla met Moses on Platform 4” or “Relapse. Milla starts chemo.” Or “Insomnia” - ahead of different segments. This storytelling approach is effective, but is used a bit too often, and reaches a point where it becomes more irritating than informative. But because the film is so character driven, and those characters are both interesting and a bit bewildering in their behavior - and are all so well played - any exasperation with the gimmick soon dissipates.
The film opens with that meeting on “Platform 4,” as Milla, standing apart from her school friends at a train station, is seen breathing heavily, and is approached by a raggedy, red-eyed stranger named Moses, who helps her when she gets a sudden nosebleed, then asks her for money because, he says, he was just evicted.
The ensuing introduction of Anna and Henry - he’s a psychiatrist in his home office, she appears to be his patient, but is definitely not - allows that the film is going to have at least a small measure of friskiness.
What follows is a series of introductory scenes, of people and situations, that are initially confusing but eventually explained. And though some of it remains murky, particularly the background of Moses and why, when he attempts to visit his mom and younger sibling, his mom calls the police, most of it is made clear enough to be able to understand most of the behavior of these people.
The easiest person to know and empathize with is Anna, a woman who would do anything for her daughter. She has, it’s implied, already given up a successful concert pianist career to take care of her when she fell ill. But Anna is also a victim of insomnia, of wild mood swings, and is dependent on the anti-anxiety pills prescribed by her husband, which come in pretty handy when she meets Moses and finds out he’s 23 - far too old for Milla. In short order, it’s shown that she’s fiercely protective of Milla. Henry is more enigmatic. Mendelsohn plays him as someone who tries to appear carefree, but is holding in an obvious frustration concerning the challenges of his daughter’s illness, his wife’s dependency, and the threat of the peculiar and possibly dangerous young man who has come into the family’s orbit.
There’s no use trying to figure out what makes Moses tick. He can appear to be a nice guy, but he’s certainly not a nice guy. He’s not above stealing and selling some of the drugs that are keeping Milla alive. There’s an air of desperation around him. And he doesn’t simply question authority, he ignores it. But what got him to this point remains blurry.
Milla, though, is comparatively an open book. Her health has more ups and downs than her mom’s moods. Music makes her happy, but she no longer has the requisite concentration to stick with practicing her violin. In meeting Moses, she’s experiencing what she believes to be her first brush with love and, realizing that she might not get another chance, she’ll do anything to hold on to it, despite his blatant irresponsibility toward her and her condition.
There are moments of happiness, as well as moments of unrelenting misery. Things go wrong, boiling points are reached. The film veers toward becoming emotionally overwrought, but the actors and the director never let it get out of control. It all pulls together as an intense and beautiful film.
“Babyteeth” will be available on most streaming platforms on June 19.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Rita Kalnejais; directed by Shannon Murphy
With Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn