BabyTeeth: It has been a very dry August release calendar, and with what is arguably a release that has essentially been marketed quite poorly, honestly this was one of the few new releases that was coming out on the week I saw it and I barely saw any advertisements for it. It doesn’t help that not a lot of cinemas are carrying new releases in a bid to not exceed excess demand with the COVID situation being what it is.
BabyTeeth is an Australian film that’s been directed by Shannon Murphy. This is her first feature length directorial job, having directed mostly in television and short films prior to this, though you might recognise her name because she directed two episodes of Killing Eve. This film is also the screenplay debut of first-time writer Rita Kalnejais, and as a result I kind of went into this thinking this would be a film which would be quite a bit of struggle since this is a first-time feature length director with a first-time writer. Now, I will give my thoughts completely on BabyTeeth but to give a brief plot synopsis, the story is about a cancer suffering teenage Mila, played by Eliza Scanlen, who you might recognise from Little Women, falling in love with a drug-addicted boy Moses, played by Toby Wallace, and then trying to deal with their rather problematic relationship despite the fact it’s probably one of the few things that’s keeping Mila going, as well as a home life with her parents who are going through their own issues at the same time.
Yeah, as you can expect from that, BabyTeeth is a very dark film. It is a sort of coming-of-age story but it’s standing against a backdrop of a very desperate situation. I find most cancer dramas nowadays have this idea of living life to the full and making the most of your time. BabyTeeth kind of stands out in a sense because I don’t feel like it is saying that. I’ve seen some reviews that actually have said this, but personally I came out of it saying that the message was, well, let’s try to make things not suck so much rather than live life to the full.
The film is divided in several chapters – it almost reads like a diary, and it’s a very, very weird structure. They don’t exactly have chapter titles, just more sort of subheadings on a notepad. It almost feels like this is the main character writing this down as we’re going, and actually I thought the structure and the pace of the film was really well done. This film is certainly going to have a lot of critics. The relationship between Mila and Moses is obviously, for a lack of a better word, somewhat problematic – it is a guy who seems to be in his early twenties dating a girl at least 4 or 5 years younger than him. I don’t think they ever specify what Mila’s age was in the film, which might be a big part to explaining why this film has an MA17 rating in America. I would’ve thought under other circumstances this film would’ve got an R rating. MA17 practically means that this will likely not receive a cinematic release in America – cinemas tend to not want to touch films that get that rating. To be fair and to the film’s credit, the film doesn’t pretend it’s necessarily a good thing or just handwave it away – it’s pointed out almost constantly that this is not the healthiest thing in the world but the film also kind of suggests it’s the one thing kind of keeping her alive right now. As a result, I felt really conflicted by the end of the movie, though to be honest it did feel somewhat off at the very least at most times, and when you have that issue it can squander the rest of the film.
This is a film that’s really about very damaged people; the parents of Mila are not much better – the father is struggling to communicate with his wife, which is rather ironic considering he’s a therapist, and Mila’s mother who is probably one of the most prominent roles in the film is trying to come off a prescription medication and has been suppressing her musical talent to take time to take care of Mila. In fact, opioid addiction is a big theme – it’s what both Mila’s mother and Moses are hooked on, and in Moses’s case is also dealing. It’s definitely of the moment since opioids has become one of the biggest substances to be abused right now, especially in the United States. I couldn’t say for certain how badly the crisis has hit in Australia. Again though, the problem is that the film feels like these things are incidental and they’re there because it’s essentially to show that everyone’s kind of been broken by the situation. They try to make Moses somewhat likeable, especially considering that he’s estranged from his mum and little brother because of his drug abuse, and he seems to be able to do the right thing, but he often does it for the wrong reason. They try to give him a sympathetic back story but it’s hard to get around the fact that his motives at most times are very, very questionable at best. The film tries to sort of redeem him at the end but it’s not entirely successful at it, and I’m not sure that the character will come off as sympathetic to every audience member.
This really is Mila’s story though, and the film wisely focuses almost entirely on her – there are very few scenes that she is not a part of, and it’s really boosted by the fact that Eliza Scanlen gives an excellent performance. This is another film where some rather shaky writing is propped up by a fantastic central performance, and her dedication to the role is excellent. Some of these moments hit home when things inevitably tend to go downhill. Because we’ve gotten to know Mila and everything she’s going through and she’s made to be a very sympathetic character, it really feels like a gut punch almost every time.
Now, there are also a few scenes that tend to go nowhere. There’s actually a scene in a club which is really weird around the halfway point of the film – honestly, it takes up about five minutes and you could probably cut most of it and you wouldn’t have lost anything. It was a very baffling scene and I was just watching it thinking, ‘What the hell is this? This just feels like weird symbolism that’s been placed in for no good reason.’ I will say though, BabyTeeth is also a film where you really need to be a certain mood to watch it – this is obviously going to be a really depressing film so just be prepared for that when you go into it; this is a film that you need to be in the right mood for.
Now, if there’s another thing I can praise about this film it’s the cinematography. The cinematography in this film is actually excellent – I really feel they did a good job just capturing everything they wanted to get on film, and the use of colour is excellent throughout the movie.
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