Review: ‘Nitram,’ starring Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Essie Davis and Anthony LaPaglia

April 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Nitram”

Directed by Justin Kurzel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tasmania, Australia, from 1987 to 1996, the dramatic film “Nitram” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, a troubled young man nicknamed Nitram goes on a downward spiral before committing heinous acts of murder.

Culture Audience: “Nitram” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that take a dark and disturbing look into the mind of a mass murderer.

Caleb Landry Jones and Essie Davis in “Nitram” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Whenever a scripted movie is made about a notorious murderer, there’s a fine line between trying to understand what caused this person to kill and exploiting/glorifying the situation without any empathy for those harmed by murder. “Nitram,” which is based on real events, walks that fine line. As a psychological portrait, “Nitram” has top-notch acting and succeeds at showing the tragic results of enabling toxic people. As a well-rounded story that gives importance to the real-life murder victims, this drama falls very short.

“Nitram” has absolutely no regard for the real-life victims of the 1996 Port Arthur gun-shooting massacre in Tasmania, Australia—a tragedy that killed 35 people, wounded 23 people, and was caused by a lone gunman, whose name will not be mentioned in this review. It’s the movie’s biggest failing, but one could argue that’s because “Nitram” is told from the point of view of the murderer, who obviously had a complete disregard for the people whose lives that he destroyed. Fortunately, “Nitram” does not glorify this murderer but instead responsibly takes the approach (and shows in disturbing ways) that this horrific murder spree might have been prevented if better care had been taken to get help for the mental health problems of the murderer.

Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, “Nitram” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where “Nitram” star Caleb Landry Jones (who plays the title character) won the prize for Best Actor. Released in Australia in 2021, “Nitram” went on to win 11 out of its 15 nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director and all the actor/actress prizes) at the 2021 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. All of these industry accolades certainly have their merits.

However, it still doesn’t erase the fact that filmmakers doing scripted movies about real-life murders are much more inclined to want to make movies about the murderers instead of the victims. It sends mixed messages when it’s been proven many times that several of these murderers commit these heinous crimes because they want the publicity and the attention, including movies or TV shows made about them. In many ways, “Nitram” doesn’t really help in the healing process for loved ones of the murder victims.

To be clear: “Nitram” rightfully puts almost all of the blame on the killer for this mass murder spree. However, the movie is also a scathing indictment of those who saw all the warning signs that he was a ticking time bomb, and they chose to do nothing or look the other way. It might be open to debate how accurately the women in Nitram’s life are portrayed in this movie, but they are depicted as his biggest enablers, who have some apparent signs of mental illness too.

“Nitram” (which takes place in Tasmania, Australia) opens with an audio recording of a boy being interviewed about setting off firecrackers in an incident where he accidentally burned himself. The unidentified female interviewer asks the boy if he will still play with firecrackers. If she was expecting him to say no, because he learned his lesson, she’s in for a rude awakening. Without hesitation, the boy says that he will continue to play with firecrackers.

That boy, whose nickname is Nitram, grows up to be a troubled, young adult loner (played by Jones), who lives with his parents and who still sets off firecrackers and ignores neighbors’ complaints about this dangerous activity. Later, Nitram develops a fascination for shooting guns at random targets. Except for a few childhood flashbacks, “Nitram” takes place from 1987 to 1996, during the years when Nitram was his late teens to late 20s.

Near the beginning of the movie, the adult Nitram is shown to be a major nuisance in the neighborhood, but his unnamed mother (played by Judy Davis) also ignores people’s complaints about him. When a neighbor yells at Nitram to stop setting off firecrackers, Nitram’s mother calmly appears at the front door of the family house, and she tells Nitram that dinner is ready. This dinner table scene is a microcosm of the dynamics between these three family members.

Nitram’s mother is smothering, domineering, and at times a little fearful in her relationship with Nitram. Nitram’s unnamed father (played by Anthony LaPaglia) is passive, non-confrontational, and trying to be a loving father. Nitram is highly manipulative and aware that he has mental health problems, but he uses his mental illness as both a weapon to harm or scare people, or as a shield to prevent him from connecting with people because he’s afraid of them hurting him.

As an example of how he keeps people off-balance, in the dinner scene, Nitram starts off the meal dressed in overalls. But then, he abruptly leaves the table in the middle of the meal. Nitram comes back to the table wearing nothing but underwear briefs. When he sits back down at the table, his parents say nothing and continue the meal as if they haven’t noticed Nitram’s change of attire. It’s implied that these parents are used to Nitram and his bizarre actions, which they ignore as much as possible.

There are signs that Nitram has arrested development when it comes to his maturity and learning skills. In real life, the killer was diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are shown or hinted at throughout the entire movie. And although “Nitram” doesn’t show his childhood education, it’s implied that in whatever schooling he had with other kids, he was bullied and treated as an outcast.

As a young adult, Nitram tries to show that he’s interested in a hobby. When he sees a surfboard in a store window, he goes home and asks his mother if he can have the surfboard. She refuses to give him the money for it and says, “I love you, but surfing is not for you.”

The movie has a very minor subplot of Nitram trying to befriend a confident and popular surfer named Jamie (played by Sean Keenan), who has a girlfriend named Riley (played by Phoebe Taylor), who meets Nitram at a beach one day. Jamie tries to give dating advice to Nitram, but this advice mostly goes nowhere because Nitram is socially awkward. Most women who encounter Nitram either ignore him or seem a little repulsed by him because he comes across as creepy and weird.

Needless to say, Nitram has trouble holding on to a job, so he lives with his parents while collecting disability benefits. Nitram attempts to earn some money by asking people in the neighborhood if they need yard care services. Most of the people he approaches seem wary of Nitram and his disheveled appearance, so they say no.

However, a lonely, middle-aged eccentric named Helen (played by Essie Davis) says yes and hires Nitram to clean up her backyard. Later, she hires him for more odd jobs and other housework, and he becomes a regular visitor even when he’s not working. Helen, who is single and lives alone, welcomes his company.

Helen is about 20 years older than Nitram. She lives in a run-down house where she has several dogs and a cat. There are indications that she has hoarding tendencies. Helen and Nitram find out they both have a strange sense of humor, so the two of them hit it off almost immediately. At first, they start off as friends, but then they become romantically involved with each other.

Even though she lives in a dilapidated house, Helen is actually a wealthy heiress who is living off of the money she inherited from her late father. It’s information that she doesn’t tell Nitram about right away. But after they become close, he eventually finds out, and it isn’t long before she invites Nitram to move in with her. Nitram eagerly takes this offer and abruptly moves out of his parents’ home.

Later, Nitram becomes fixated on guns. He has a rifle that he shoots at random targets. Helen voices her disapproval and tells Nitram that he can no longer live with her if he’s going to keep any guns in the house. It’s the only time that the movie depicts someone in Nitram’s life actually setting boundaries for him.

However, Nitram has a dangerous habit that Helen sees firsthand, but she dismisses it as harmless. When Nitram is a passenger in a car, he randomly lunges at the car’s driver and starts a physical altercation while the driver fights to maintain control of the car. Even though Helen sees obvious signs that Nitram can be violent, she does nothing to get him help for his mental health. Except for the gun possession, she lets him do whatever he wants inside and outside of her house.

Nitram’s mother vehemently disapproves of Nitram’s relationship with Helen, because Nitram’s mother is suspicious of Helen’s intentions. One of the movie’s best-acted scenes is when Nitram’s parents meet Helen for the first time during an awkward meal at a restaurant. Nitram is also there during the meeting, but Nitram’s mother talks about him as if he isn’t there. Nitram’s mother—who is seething with resentment that Nitram’s attentions are now focused entirely on someone outside of her home—comes right out and asks Helen how Helen thinks of Nitram: “Is he a husband or a son?”

On another occasion, Nitram’s mother tells Helen a disturbing story about something that happened when Nitram was 5 years old. Nitram’s mother had brought him with her when she went shopping at a fabric store. She lost sight of him, and when she saw that she couldn’t find him, she went frantically looking for him. Several people got involved in the search. Nitram was found hiding in the back seat of his mother’s car, knowing that people were looking for him. According to his mother, Nitram could see how distressed she was, but he was laughing at her pain.

And what about Nitram’s father? There’s a scene where he has to pick up an adult Nitram from a schoolyard because Nitram has set off firecrackers in the yard where children (who are about 7 to 10 years old) are playing. The school’s principal is understandably very upset. When Nitram’s father arrives, he profusely says that he’s sorry and that it won’t happen again, but Nitram shows no remorse. When Nitram and his father drive away in the car, he scolds Nitram and tells him to never to set off firecrackers in a school again, but Nitram’s father doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the enormity of what just happened.

During much of the movie, Nitram’s father is preoccupied with getting a bank loan to buy a house to start a bed-and-breakfast business. What happens in this hoped-for sale becomes a catalyst for a lot of what occurs later in the movie. People who know the full story of what happened in real life already know how this bed-and-breakfast sale had a role in the killer’s downward spiral, but it won’t be revealed in this review.

Because all of the cast members give such realistic performances, “Nitram” is worth watching so viewers can get an up-close and personal look at the unraveling of this family, and how it all culminated in the horrific tragedy that happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, on April 28 and April 29, 1996. It was Australia’s largest gun-shooting massacre committed by one person in a 24-hour period. (The movie does not show the gory details of this mass murder.) There are no real heroes in this story, but “Nitram” sounds the alarm for people not to ignore red flags when someone shows obvious signs of becoming a murderer.

IFC Films released “Nitram” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on March 30, 2022, the same date that AMC+ premiered the movie. “Nitram” was released in Australia in 2021.

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.

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