Netflix UK film review: Babyteeth
Ivan Radford | On 10, Dec 2020
Director: Shannon Murphy
Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn
Watch Babyteeth online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“That boy has problems.” “So do I!” That’s Milla (Eliza Scanlen) to her mother, Anna (Essie Davis), when she’s warned about hooking up with her new boyfriend. That would be Moses (Toby Wallace), who crosses paths with Milla at the train station. He’s a wayward sort, a drug dealer with tattoos – precisely the kind of guy you don’t take home to your parents. The fact that Milla is also dealing with terminal cancer only complicates matters further. All of this sounds like a recipe for heavy-handed, mawkish teen drama, but Shannon Murphy’s directorial debut is anything but – this remarkable film is as vivid and lively as they come.
Key to that tone is the decision not to be consumed by Milla’s diagnosis but focus on everyone getting on with life instead – from Milla dealing with wearing her wig at school, where the formal dance looms, to her dad, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), who has his own drug-related issues. These aren’t necessarily happy situations and the family is far from functional, but there’s a raw and awkward honesty to the way that Murphy charts each situation without descending into movie cliches.
Moses is the driver of the narrative’s disruptive form, as he’s brought into their home as Anna and Henry see how happy he makes Milla. Adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her own play, there’s a intense, intimate feel to the resulting chamber-like ensemble, as the family and Moses all crowd around the dinner table. But Babyteeth is beautifully cinematic throughout, as Murphy dives into Milla’s rush of feelings and excitement; the electricity of the lead couple’s chemistry is echoed by a gorgeous use of bright colours – not least Milla’s teal wig – and a crackling, eclectic soundtrack matched by sprightly title cards.
Amid that swirling sense of chaos, the cast ground everything with some superb performances, with Mendelsohn and Davis bringing an aching pain to their crumbling marriage and Scanlen bursting with sympathetic determination to take control of her future (plus the occasional bird call). Inevitably, the unspoken conflict between Milla’s coming-of-age journey and the looming threat of her condition taking it all away leads to some heart-wrenching moments of consequence and confrontation, but there’s never a sense that we know how this tale is going to end. “I don’t want hurt you,” says Moses, partway through. The movie’s heart is found in Milla’s pure and simple reply: “So don’t.”
Babyteeth is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.