Young people’s lives being cut off in the bloom of their youth is an evergreen staple of teen-centric entertainment. But the past decade or so has seen a flood of palliative variations on the theme. Now Is Good, The Fault In Our Stars, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, Midnight Sun, Five Feet Apart, Everything, Everything: All these films feature a teenage girl with a terminal and/or rare illness who graciously finds the time to teach those around her how to really live while she’s in the midst of dying. And like all clichés, particularly the melodramatic ones, the cancer-teen romance is begging to be caricatured. Australian director Shannon Murphy is here to oblige with Babyteeth, a fresh take on the trope that plays something like a John Waters movie for the Billie Eilish generation.
Eliza Scanlen, best known abroad for playing little-sister roles in HBO’s Sharp Objects miniseries and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, stars as Milla, a sheltered 15-year-old cancer patient who falls immediately and hard for Moses (Toby Wallace), the scuzzy 23-year-old drifter who literally runs into her on a train platform in the opening scene. It’s obvious from the start that Moses is trouble, and not just because he looks like a Soundcloud rapper. He’s also a one-man illegal pharmacy who’s caught stealing pills from Milla’s psychiatrist dad Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) more than once before Henry invites him to move in. You read that correctly; after several attempts to keep him and Milla apart, Henry and his wife Anna (Essie Davis) invite Moses to come live with the family, as a comfort for their daughter in the last weeks of her life. Sure, Moses is a drug dealer. But so’s Henry, in his way.
Both Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais view the grey areas of this unconventional arrangement both cuttingly and compassionately; their film is less cynical than Cory Finely’s Thoroughbreds but in the same polished black-comedy wheelhouse. This means skewering the absurdity and hypocrisy of Henry and Anna’s bourgeois morality while leaving room for their good intentions, as flawed as those may be. A similar ambivalence is applied to Moses, whose motivations for befriending Milla are mixed at best but do betray some pity, if not actual love, for this fragile girl. In playing along with Milla’s fantasy of a great romance in her dying days, Anna, Henry, and Moses create a convincing replica of a happy family that’s both comically demented— “He’s a drug dealer!” Anna cries after first meeting Moses; “Don’t pigeonhole him like that!” her daughter snaps back—and oddly sweet.
Babyteeth is told in self-contained chapters, each adorned with a pithy title like “Nausea,” “Romance, Pt. 1,” and, in one particularly cheeky example, “Fuck This.” But although the film bends the boundaries of linear storytelling, establishing a freewheeling, jazzy rhythm of its own, this plot can only come to one conclusion. And as that ending approaches, the tone shifts from dark comedy to sentimental drama, adding a maudlin aftertaste to an otherwise appealingly bitter brew.
One thing that remains consistent throughout is Murphy and DP Andrew Commis’ striking use of color, a very contemporary palette anchored by shades of pinkish beige and overcast turquoise that varies in saturation depending on the mood of a scene. Murphy also shows a talent for seamlessly combining naturalistic performances from her actors with the heightened stylization of the film as a whole—a skill she presumably honed directing episodes of the similarly pitched Killing Eve—all of which mark her as a singular talent. It’s just too bad that she couldn’t resist making the thing she was satirizing.