Most people will know Eliza Scanlen from her scene stealing turn on Sharp Objects or maybe even from the early reactions praising her performance in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and most will know Ben Mendelsohn from his Star Wars and Marvel roles but they’re back on team indie this time around in Shannon Murphy’s directorial debut. Babyteeth follows two parents and their seriously ill teenage daughter, who get their lives shaken up when she falls for a small time drug dealer.
There are some classic parent combinations in film, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in Easy A, Julie Walters and Mark Williams in Harry Potter, Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia in The Addams Family and the pairing of Mendelsohn and Essie Davis deservedly join their ranks in the hall of fame. Many fans of The Babadook may not recognise Davis here but that speaks to her ability to so potently get into the skin of her characters, that you forget about anything other than the one in front of you and the chemistry and banter between her and Mendelsohn is completely charming and effortlessly funny. Then you add Scanlen as Milla and this is a family you want to be a part of, they may be far from perfect but they’re kind, real and tackling a horrible situation head on. The three of them on screen together come across as entirely natural, the humour feels like it doesn’t even have to try, they’re not pushing for a laugh, it’s purely genuinely funny, there’s not an ounce of insincerity to a second of this film.
Scanlen has only been acting for a handful of years but she has such a presence that she’s instantly more beguiling than a huge number of actors who’ve been doing this for a lifetime, she feels uninhibited, she’s throwing everything she has at this character and it gives her an incredible glow on screen. All of that is apparent within the first five minutes, the rest is even better because the sheer emotion that this trio of actors bring to life is stunning. There’s also a standout performance from Toby Wallace, a relatively unknown actor but one that you’ll be certain to remember after his brilliant portrayal of the eccentric Moses.
Directed as though it were the diary of Milla which has come to life, things move at a surprisingly fast pace, it’s often that dramas of this nature are lingering and slow but Murphy cleverly doesn’t fall into that trap. Murphy manages to make something that’s both deeply thoughtful and joyous, which may sound strange for a film about a seriously ill teenager but that’s the fantastic thing about it, it’s beyond heart-breaking and it’s unlikely you’ll be prepared for the sledgehammer of emotion it’s packing but it’s also very funny and a celebration of life and love. This is in large part due to the fantastic writing of Rita Kalnejais, another debut as her first feature, adapted from the play of the same name, it’s relatable, hugely sympathetic and undoubtedly tragic but incredibly witty, which just makes it all the more heart-breaking.
The mark of an impressive film is that it can leave you without words, you can feel how the film affected you but not adequately express it because it’s something people need to experience for themselves and Babyteeth is one of those films. The direction, writing, acting, cinematography it all works together so perfectly to create something that will stick with you, the last moments these characters share before the credits roll is quite possibly one of the most moving moments you’ll ever see on the big screen. Shannon Murphy is an experienced director but taking on a feature is never an easy task and she’s done it so faultlessly that it’s hard to believe it’s her first, similarly to watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart or most appropriately Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, it leaves you bursting with anticipation to see what her next film will be.
Sadly it’s likely that Babyteeth won’t reach the biggest number of cinemas, being an independent film from a debut director doesn’t give it the biggest leg up but fingers crossed that its well known actors will push it into more locations because you won’t regret taking a chance on this film. It’s bursting with emotion, it packs a punch and it’s unforgettable.