“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” You wouldn’t expect that quote from Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who died in 1910, to apply to a hip family living in Australia in the here and now. But Tolstoy knew his stuff. And in Babyteeth, available on demand on June 19th, his truth courses through the lives of the Finlay clan.
Psychiatrist Henry Finlay (Ben Mendelsohn) and his wife Anna (Essie Davis), once a music prodigy, enjoy their posh life in Sydney. That is until their daughter Milla (Eliza Scanlen), just turned 16, encounters first love in the person of Moses (Toby Wallace), 23, a hot-wired junkie. But since Milla is unlikely to experience a second love — she’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer — the Finlays have to make allowances. In the hands of first-time feature director Shannon Murphy — who crushed it in both of the Season Three Killing Eve episodes she helmed — and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, who adapted her own play, Babyteeth rips past the hackneyed tropes of illness drama to dig out what’s fresh in the familiar.
Scanlen, a.k.a. Beth in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, takes a messier approach to doom this time around. Why go gentle into that good night if you can make some noise with the tattooed hellraiser who body slams her on a train platform? To be fair, Moses also uses his shirt to wipe up the muck from Milla’s bloody nose and gives her a haircut with the poodle clippers from his mom’s pet salon. The next step is inevitable, according to one of the film’s many chapter headings: “When Milla Brought Moses Home to Meet Her Parents.”
The meeting does not go well. First, there’s the age difference. Then there’s the way Moses shamelessly nicks all those pills from the Finlay medicine cabinet. But who are these parents to throw stones? Henry’s not above dipping into his own morphine stash or prescribing Zoloft and Xanax to help Anna ease through the challenges of mothering a dying girl. The Finlays have appointment sex every Tuesday in Henry’s office, right there on his desk. Quirky stuff. But Aussie stars Mendelsohn (Bloodline) and Davis (The Babadook) show how emotional pain is not limited to the dying.
Still, the focus of Babyteeth rightly falls on Milla and Moses. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine,” quips Anna, as she and Henry watch their daughter and Moses rolling around half naked on the lawn. Does impending death qualify as extenuating circumstances? It does here, as Murphy brings dark comedy and rare vibrancy to a genre that usually wallows in sentiment, self-pity and hospital scenes filled with tangled tubes and beeping monitors.
Milla suffers bouts of chemo and nausea, but in the words of another chapter title, “Fuck This.” She has few illusions about Moses, who freely admits, “I’m not ready to be functional.” Cheers to Wallace for bringing humor and warmth to a character, an orphan of his own family storm, who might otherwise repel us for letting Milla’s dad sort him out with drugs as the price for not deserting her. His daughter knows what’s up, snapping at her parents: “You think I can’t take the fact that he doesn’t love me back?” But Moses, cutting his own baby teeth when it comes to maturity, feels something and feels it strong. So will you.
Murphy, aided by the electric battle between light and shadow in Andrew Commis’ cinematography, refuses to play it safe. Neither do the actors. The four main performances could not be better. Scanlen ignites sparks with Wallace — they are stars in the making — and are moving in scenes that find Milla trying to figure out how to cram a lifetime into a moment. This extraordinary film ends with a coda that offers no catharsis, just the pleasures of an ordinary day at the beach where Milla’s essential people take photos, act silly and relish what is instead of what will be. Babyteeth is a thing of both beauty and terror. It means to hit you hard — and boy, does it.