Review: ‘Babyteeth,’ starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedde, Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace in “Babyteeth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Babyteeth” 

Directed by Shannon Murphy

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sydney, the drama “Babyteeth” has an almost all-white cast (with a few Asian characters) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl with a terminal illness falls in love with an older guy who’s a drug addict/drug dealer, and the relationship goes against her parents’ wishes.

Culture Audience: “Babyteeth” will appeal primarily to people who like intricate character studies that tackle difficult subjects through the perspective of one family.

Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn in “Babyteeth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

How many times has this been done in a movie? A straight-laced teenage girl becomes rebellious by dating an older “bad boy” and clashes with her parents who don’t approve of the relationship. “Babyteeth,” which is set in Sydney, takes this well-worn concept and sneaks up on viewers by going down a path that most people won’t expect by the end of the film. It’s an impressive feature-film debut from director Shannon Murphy, who shows that she has a unique vision that is at times bold and experimental for the subject matter.

“Babyteeth” is also the first feature film written by Rita Kalnejais, who adapted the screenplay from her play of the same title. Each of the movie’s scenes is shown as a different title on the screen (something that most directors would never do), with descriptions such as “Anna and Henry’s Tuesday Appointment,” “Insomnia” and “Love.” And although youthful rebellion is a big part of the story, “Babyteeth” is also about how a child’s terminal illness can affect the marriage of the child’s parents.

The relationship that causes a lot of the chaos in the story is that of 15-year-old Milla Finlay and a 23-year-old small-time drug dealer/addict named Moses (played by Toby Wallace), who literally crashes into her when he runs on a train platform where Milla is waiting. By all outward appearances, Moses is a sketchy character: He’s unkempt, he’s got some tattoos his face and he has the look of someone who’s strung out on drugs.

Moses makes small talk with a stunned Milla, who looks every inch the sheltered schoolgirl that she is, with her neatly pressed school uniform and wide-eyed gaze. While Milla and Moses are talking, she gets a nosebleed. And then he takes his shirt off and cradles her while he uses the shirt to stop the nosebleed. Milla is immediately smitten, even though she eventually has to ask Moses to take his shirt off of her face because it smells so bad. (It’s an example of the film’s little touches of humor.)

It isn’t long before Moses tells Milla that he’s homeless, and he sheepishly asks her for money. She gives him $50, but she coyly tells him that since she gave him this money, he has do something for her in return. The next thing you know, Moses is giving Milla a choppy haircut at his mother’s house.

Moses’ single mother Polly (played by Georgina Symes) breeds and trains Bichon Frise dogs as her job. She lives with Moses’ pre-teen brother Isaac (played by Zack Grech), who gets along well with Moses, but their mother most certainly does not. Polly has so much animosity toward Moses that when she sees him with Milla in her house, she immediately calls the police to report a break-in.

Moses and Milla then run off, and Milla (who’s an only child) impulsively invites Moses over for dinner at her place. Milla’s surprised parents—psychiatrist Henry (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and homemaker Anna (played by Essie Davis)—try to be polite and accommodating, but they’re actually horrified that Milla has brought home an older guy who is an obvious bad influence on their daughter.

During dinner, Milla mentions that she still has her baby teeth, “which is an aberration for someone as old as me.” When Moses opens Milla’s mouth to look inside, this suggestive flirting becomes too much for Anna, who yells at Moses to stop. And there’s a reason why the movie is called “Babyteeth,” since the teeth are symbolic of Milla’s innocence, and this symbolism is made very clear in another scene later in the movie.

Although Anna and Henry both disapprove of Moses when they first meet him, Anna is more protective of Milla than Henry is. “What have you done to my daughter?” Anna asks Milla. “I killed her,” Milla replies. The next day, Milla tells Anna that she thought Anna was being rude to Moses. Anna responds, “He’s got problems!” Milla shouts back, “So do I!”

And those problems are health-related, because Milla has cancer. She was in remission, but the cancer has come back with a vengeance. Milla undergoes chemotherapy, and since she loses all of her hair, she wears various wigs throughout the movie. At first Milla is self-conscious about no longer having her real hair, but then she learns to embrace different wigs to express herself.

Meanwhile, Henry and Anna are having issues in their marriage. Henry has prescribed several medications for Anna, which cause her to have mood swings. Their sex life (shown in near the beginning of the film) happens in furtive moments, such as in Henry’s office, and has become pretty unfulfilling for both of them.

Therefore, it’s not a surprise when Henry takes notice of a pretty, slightly offbeat woman who lives in the neighborhood. Her name is Toby (played by Emily Barclay), and Henry first meets her while he’s walking in the neighborhood and she goes looking for her missing dog, which is also named Henry. Toby is in the advanced stages of pregnancy, but when Henry meets her for the first time, she’s smoking a cigarette.

Henry admonishes Toby for smoking. Toby isn’t the brightest bulb in the drawer. She tells Henry that smoking while pregnant is okay because she read it online somewhere. In spite of Toby’s intellectual shortcomings, it’s obvious that Henry is kind of attracted to her.

There’s also a subplot that doesn’t work too well in the film: Milla plays the violin as a hobby and is in a small music class with a pre-teen violin prodigy named Tin Wah (played by Edward Lau). Milla’s music instructor Gidon (played by Eugene Gilfedder) used to work with Anna (who plays the piano) when Gidon and Anna were touring as part of a classical music group several years ago. Gidon apparently was or is in love with Anna, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Aside from Gidon noticing that Milla seems to be in love after she meets Moses, the Gidon character is fairly unnecessary to the story.

Anna still feels guilty over not being there for Milla much as she wanted to be when Milla was a baby, because of Anna’s work commitments at the time. It’s probably why Anna feels very overprotective of Milla and wants to have a close relationship with her daughter, who is pulling away emotionally from her parents and is caught up in the idea of getting Moses to be her boyfriend.

Even though Moses is sleazy, he’s still wary of getting involved with an underage girl. Meanwhile, Milla is already calling him her “boyfriend,” and she asks him to be her date to her 10th grade formal dance. Her giddy reaction when he says yes is an example of how much Milla is still a child.

Milla’s parents have every reason to be concerned about Moses, because shortly after Milla and Moses start dating each other, Moses breaks into the Finlay home to steal medication. Anna catches him in the act and Henry is ready to call the police, but Milla begs him not to do it.

Thus begins a pattern for most of the movie: Moses does something selfish and reckless, one of Milla’s parents (usually Anna) orders Moses to stay away from Milla, but then the parents let Moses back into their lives. The only logical explanation for this back-and-forth is that the parents are torn about what to do.

On the one hand, they know that Moses is too old to be dating their daughter and he isn’t a great guy. On the other hand, they know Milla might not live long and they want her to be as happy as possible. And that “nothing left to lose, live in the moment” mentality is why Milla fell so hard and fast for Moses.

There’s a particularly effective (and visually stunning) scene where Milla and Moses end up at a nightclub together. It’s a turning point in their relationship because it’s the first time that she’s taken into his world of nightlife partying. And it’s the first time that Moses shows jealousy when Milla gets attention from another guy.

Scanlen, Mendelsohn and Davis all give dynamic and believable performances as the dysfunctional Finlay family. Although all three of these characters make some cringeworthy choices in the film when it comes to their interactions with Moses, “Babyteeth” effectively shows that the trauma of cancer can cause people to do things that they might not normally do.

“Babyteeth” isn’t a typical angsty teen drama about a girl who’s dating someone her parents don’t really like. The last third of the movie takes a very dark turn that might be disturbing for some viewers. However, “Babyteeth” is an emotionally stirring character study of what people will do to cope with pain and mental anguish that they really don’t want to talk about having.

IFC Films released “Babyteeth” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.