Babyteeth Review: Scanlen’s incredible breakout performance creates one of the best films of 2020
Over the last few years, there has been a seemingly endless stream of adaptations where even the sickest of people somehow find love. Films like Five Feet Apart and The Fault in Our Stars, have made viewers always carry a tissue box at their side by tugging at their heartstrings through fantastical love and tragedy. Personally, these films used to seem like a cookie cutter money maker for studios, but have grown on me more since seeing how Five Feet Apart played with typical tropes and trappings of this genre – if you would call it that. However, the feature debut of director Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth, strikes a vastly different chord than its genre companions and is an explorative look into illness, first love and, tragedy at a young age.
The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen) – an ill teenager who’s under the watchful and worrisome eyes of her parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). One day, while waiting for the train, Milla meets a drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace) and falls in love with him at first sight. Although her parents don’t necessarily approve of Moses and believe that he isn’t a good influence for her, Milla just wants to be with him. However, as her illness gets worse and her relationship with Moses affects her relationship with her parents, Milla and her family begin face unexpected hardships that threatens to tear them apart.
Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais subvert the expectations generally had about stories that mix tragic illness and young love by creating a story that’s more tragedy than love. Milla is an incredibly compelling character whose feelings of first love towards Moses, even if his intentions aren’t always as genuine as she wants them to be, are instantly relatable and very touching. Like anyone with their first love, Milla is full of absolute bliss at the mere sight of Moses and loves him no matter what his parents say about him. Although she’s in total bliss with Moses, that doesn’t mean that Milla is blind to things and its this awareness that she has of Moses’ actions, the severity of her own illness, and her parents’ issues that makes her such a strong character.
To call Milla’s situation complex would be a drastic understatement. Not only is she wrestling with how her illness affecting her parents, but she’s also going through a major transitional point in her life where she wants to experience new things. She’s a little more confrontational with her parents and wants to begin to lead her own life. Milla is also dealing with the complications of her illness in her social life with as many people around her don’t understand how her illness has affected her self-esteem and optimism. There’s a scene where a girl asks Milla if she can wear her wig just for a photo and it’s a legitimately powerful moment of how powerless she feels. The second she takes her wig off, you can feel how much it means to her to be seen without her hair and as her pride slowly diminishes you can feel your heart being slowly ripped out of your chest because of how easily you can feel her hurt.
At the center of all of this is Scanlen delivering a triumphant performance that’s hits a wide range of emotions. She never makes Milla ever seem weak and always portrays her as someone seeking inspiration as well as being an inspiring force for others. Whether its in moments where she’s dancing around her music teacher’s office or making drastic decisions towards the end of the film that will leave viewers on the verge of tears, Scanlen constantly has your attention and an intense grasp on your heart. Really, all the performances here are top-notch as Wallace perfectly plays up Moses’ “charming” personality that allows his ulterior motives to remain a mystery. Even for him playing with Milla’s emotions at times, its easy to see the kind of place his past mistakes have left him in and the arc he has is very satisfying – even if its kind of heartbreaking.
The other two standouts are definitely Mendelsohn and Davis as they flesh out their character’s weakness and faults to great effect. As hard as things are on Milla, it’s equally as hard for her parents and its left them broken with how they attempt to handle things. From how Henry has become distant with his family and attempts to solve his issues with Moses and Anna through pushing prescriptions rather than facing them head on to Anna trying to manipulate and control Milla’s life so it can fit her views of things being okay, it’s easy to see how Milla’s illness has drastically affected them. However, they never come off as characters you hate, but rather ones that you want to empathize with and understand so that things can get better. Mendelsohn and Davis help showcase their destructive dealings with grief through powerhouse performances, but also bring out their genuinely caring personalities through the more light-hearted moments of Kalnejais’ script.
For all of the moments of deep sadness and harsh realities, it’s impressive with how successful the film is in sprinkling in some light-hearted humor through interactions with neighbors and plenty of awkward family interactions. The cast has a great chemistry that makes plenty of moments, like Anna making fun of Moses for trying to threaten her with prongs, really funny and it makes for a very balanced emotional experience. Even the way that Murphy keeps the fantasy elements alive through the bright atmosphere and also tells the story like a novel by creating tons of titles that pop up throughout the film like new chapters in a book is great and very unique. Admittedly, the chapter head do pop up a little too frequently and can be distracting, but it’s a nice touch, nevertheless.
Babyteeth is one of the best feature debuts and films of 2020 as Murphy delivers a refreshing story about love and tragedy that features a stunning breakout performance from Scanlen. It finds a balance in telling a story about the highs of first love and the lows of dealing with tragic grief that’ll leave viewers an emotional wreck, but also immensely satisfied.