ThinkMovies: Babyteeth

ThinkMovies: Babyteeth

by Alan Grant
article from Thursday 24, September, 2020

FRIENDS, this week’s movie has got me thinking about audiences. As a critic and film writer, I like to think I know who my audience is pretty well. I write for a mid-market, educated, middle-Scotland, group of folks; essentially, if I were in print, I suspect this column might be at home in the Daily Express. I like to keep the reviews accessible and informative but without being simplistic or shocking for no good reason.  

Part of this is because I think the average reader, especially of a site like ThinkScotland, is smart enough to get what I’m on about but also that so much of film criticism, journalism, and discussion is so skull-crushingly, thumb-screwingly, ‘pull you underwear up and out through the back of your throat’ pretentious. Honestly, if I read one more film review that doesn’t use the word “film”, “movie”, “motion picture”, or “cinema” I’m opening a movie theatre in Galt’s Gulch.  

Essentially, what I try to do is broker a deal between quality and interesting… which brings me neatly to Babyteeth, because, as a movie, it does exactly that. 

Based on the book by Rita Kalnejais and billed as a “coming-of-age-movie”, Babyteeth sees the directing debut of Shannon Murphy and tells the story of Milla, a seriously ill young woman living a middle-class life in suburban Australia. When the teenage Milla meets rakish tearaway 23-year-old Moses, the two begin a high-energy romance set against the backdrop of Milla’s declining health, her parent’s disapproval, and Moses chaotic, drug-centred, lifestyle.  

Babyteeth has the feeling of an arthouse picture taking a day trip to the multiplex. The script is sparse but well-crafted, the sets are deliberately bleak, and the entire aesthetic reflects both the bored mundanity of suburban life and the intense vibrancy and energy of a teen romance. The movie doesn’t make any excuses for being difficult, challenging, or provocative and that’s to its betterment in terms of authenticity and validity. Everything about its construction and production screams “this is an intelligent film and you won’t get it if you don’t know that!” Shannon Murphy is clearly a very smart director and she deserves her recent recognition as Variety’s one of “10 directors to watch” for this year. 

For all that, however, Babyteeth retains an accessibility and easiness to watch that completes it as a genuinely accomplished piece of film… and it does so because the cast are all on top of their game. The wonderfully talented Eliza Scanlen, herself just 21-years-old, brings a tragic yet funny humanity to the title role. Playing Milla’s struggle with hormones, parents, a boy that’s bad for her, as well as an awful illness is a tall-order for any actor, especially an inexperienced one, but Scanlen absolutely nails every single beat of this character piece. She, like her director, is also one to watch going into the future.  

As is Toby Wallace in the role of Moses. A less talented actor could have let the part slide into antagonist territory but Wallace manages to get his character to piss us off but never stops being likable; his energy, smile, control of body language, and tone are always spot on and he handles some of the heavier scenes like a more experienced actor and should be on your list when thinking about which films to see in the future. 

While the movie absolutely, undeniably, and rightfully belongs to this Aussie Romeo and Juliet pair, it would be wrong to not acknowledge how good Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn are as Milla’s parents, Anna and Henry Finlay. Both performances are humane, complex, and genuine – particularly towards the end of the film, when their weight as actors absolutely shows.  

Babyteeth is a film that rightly deserves the praise it has received since it came out. While some have considered it a more mainstream success, I like to think of it as more in the vein of Trainspotting, the Rocky Horror Picture ShowFear and Loathing, the Big LebowskiWatchmenFight Club, or any other film that you care to name that started out as a quirky or alternative picture that appealed to a particular group but, based on one or two stellar performances, became popular with people who prefer the multiplex to the arthouse. It might not be the biggest thing in cinema right now, for a number of reasons, but I have a hunch that it will spread through the viewing public, slowly and carefully, until it becomes a major touchstone among film-lovers. 

My suggestion is to get ahead of the curve if you possibly can. Go see Babyteeth while it’s still in cinemas and you can enjoy it as it should be enjoyed. You won’t regret it.  

Alan Grant, our resident ThinkMovies critic, can be found here with a new review every Thursday evening. @alangrantuk #thinkmovies   

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