It\’s hard to make sense of the Australian drama Babyteeth. Screenwriter Rita Kalneja\’s story threatens something treacly and familiar, about the romance between a dying teen and a troubled twenty-something. But even if it goes to some familiar places, Babyteeth never behaves the way one expects.
How do you watch a movie that hits cliched plot points with unconventional sincerity? Director Shannon Murphy teaches us how to watch Babyteeth in the film\’s second scene.
The scene opens with Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) munching on a sandwich in the office where he practices psychology, while Anna (Essie Davis) makes small talk on the couch. Sensing his indifference, Anna suggests a quick sexual encounter before his next patient. Henry obliges, but indulges every distraction, from his unfinished sandwich to the photos on his desk. Only after Henry finishes quickly to return to his work do we realize that he and Anna are husband and wife. They part unsatisfied, but too indifferent to be angry or depressed.
Anyone with a modicum of pop culture literacy knows similar scenes from a dying marriage. We\’re trained to expect a histrionic argument or a passionate affair or deep depression to follow the failure of intimacy we just watched. But Babyteeth doesn\’t give us that. Arguments end not with passionate speeches, but sputtering mumbles as neither can find the right words. Affairs fizzle before they can even begin.
Stripping these worn narrative paths of their usual sign-posts, Murphy leaves us only with people, human beings trying to figure out how to live with their problems and with each other.
But that attention on people gives Babyteeth its strength, especially in its primary plot. While waiting for the train to take her to school, Henry and Anna\’s cancer-stricken 15-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) meets Moses (Toby Wallace), who recklessly runs toward oncoming trains. Moses immediately intrigues Milla, despite the fact that he uses the act of kindness he foists upon her — shoving her face in his dirty shirt to stop her bleeding nose — as sufficient reason to ask her for money. She gravitates toward his energy, even when she knows that it\’s a self-serving show.
The romance between Moses and Milla defies logic. Milla says that she loves him, but we don\’t know why. Moses treats Milla as short-term amusement, but he keeps getting drawn back to her. Anna and Henry, rightfully dismayed by Moses\’s age difference and his many criminal activities — including burgling their home and swiping Milla\’s medicine to sell on the street — allow him to live with their daughter in their house.
What kind of people do this? As a viewer, I want so badly to judge these characters. But the movie won\’t let me.
That isn\’t to say that the film condones every action. Wallace gives an ego-less performance as Moses, letting the movie capture actions too awful to be excused by his unconvincing smile. Combining features of in her two most high-profile roles, that of poor doomed Beth in last year\’s Little Women and of treacherous waif Amma in the HBO series Sharp Objects, Scanlen gives Milla wisdom and edge that does not allow me to dismiss her feelings toward Moses as a mere schoolgirl crush. Henry and Anna recognize the problems with Milla\’s relationship with Moses, and do take steps to stop it, but nothing seems to work. They give in when they realize that nothing they do will prevent their daughter\’s death.
So when Anna and Henry watch Moses make out with Milla in their own backyard, and do nothing except mutter, \”This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,\” I have to agree. But I cannot judge.
Movies about flawed characters can devolve into sludgy melodrama (last year\’s Waves, for example). But Murphy brings a deft touch to the proceedings, making full use of the tools at her disposal. She breaks the film into vignettes separated by on-screen chapter headings, which relives the film of the pressure to hold to a coherent narrative. She and editor Stephen Evans let the actors sit in their scenes, giving them time to express physically the feelings that their characters cannot put into words. Murphy holds the rich score from Amanda Brown during the most emotionally fraught moments, letting it burst out afterwards, like the peace that overcomes us after a good cry.
None of this is to suggest that Babyteeth is a dour affair. The cinematography from Andrew Commis is as vibrant as Milla\’s blue and green wigs. His camera makes an idyll of Moses\’s swim in the backyard pool and a transfiguration of Milla\’s encounter with a bald model. The movie indulges in emotions that its characters can\’t control or stifle or speak.
The focus on emotion sometimes frustrates viewers, especially those who (like me) want the characters to make sense. But how do you make sense of a dying teenager? How do you make sense of a self-destructive twenty-something? How do you make sense of adults who need drugs to even be with each other.
Babyteeth doesn\’t allow us to make sense of it. But it does let us give witness. It teaches us to sit with the people overwhelmed with problems and let them be people. Messy and fallible people, but people nonetheless.