BABYTEETH – Review
Okay, enough with the somber serious stuff, we’re finally getting into some real Summer cinema subject matter. No, it’s not a big bombastic superhero epic, nor an action thriller, or even a raunchy slapstick comedy. This one’s a story of young people in love, and though it’s based on a play it does incorporate several themes from movies based on YA or Young Adult novels. There’s the impending disease doom of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and FIVE FEET APART and the opposites attract vibe of THE SPECTACULAR NOW. But unlike many “YA-based” films, the parents (one set at least) pretty much get major “screen time” (mmm, maybe not “equal”). Oh, and then there’s the setting: the suburbs of Australia (and a lot of cities like New South Wales and Sydney). Combine all those elements and you get the sweet and sour “dramedy” dish called BABYTEETH.
It all starts at a commuter platform, where sixteen-year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) opts not to join her classmates on the current train. Instead, she encounters a motor-mouthed twenty-something street hustler named Moses (Toby Wallace). When she gets a nosebleed, he’s quick to doff his shirt and calm her. After he asks her for some spare changes, Milla gets him to agree to cut her hair (she digs Moses’ self-styling). Meanwhile, in the office of her father, therapist Henry Finlay (Ben Mendelsohn) has his lunch interrupted by wife Anna (Essie Davis), as it is their scheduled hour for sex (one of the couple’s many quirks). That evening, Milla brings along Moses for the family dinner. Henry is stunned while the horrified Ana (“He’s 24!”) turns him away (and the smitten Ella follows). Later she takes her weekly violin lesson with Eastern European emigree Shaun (Arka Das) who still has a crush on Anna. Speaking of crushes, Henry becomes “distracted” by his very pregnant across the street neighbor Toby (Emily Barclay) who spends most days yelling for her dog, also named Henry. As the days pass we learn that Milla has been battling cancer, which soon takes her hair prompting her to wear a wispy blonde wig to school. This is where she continually meets up with Moses and gets drawn into his “low rent” downtown drug-dealing life (he’s long banished from his family home). All this takes a toll on the emotionally fragile medicated Anna. When Milla takes a turn for the worse, Henry makes the radical decision to bring Moses into their home (and give him access to his prescription pad) to provide some happiness for his daughter in what may be her last days. But will Moses “man up” and be a dependable final romance to Milla?
The story’s tragic and comedic elements are balanced by the brave confident performance of Scanlen as the complex heroine Milla. At times she veers close to the almost cliche portrayal of teens in films ( surly, disrespectful), but steers away in unexpected nuance. Yes, Milla wants to dance to her own inner song (which occurs a few times), but she yearns for the warmth of her homes and her sometimes too ‘clingy’ parents. Scanlen presents her character’s vulnerable side in a powerful scene set in the school’s lavatory. A pushy classmate barges in on Milla and insists on trying on her blonde wig (“to see how I’d like in a different style”) trapping Milla in a mix of righteous anger and humiliation. Her assured work somehow melds with the naturalistic unpredictable acting of Wallace as the free-spirit that’s difficult to embrace or trust which puts us with the elder Finlays. Near the third act, we see that Moses is in a constant battle between his mercenary instincts and his own need for family (a separated by patio glass door reunion with his adoring kid brother is heartwrenching). He frustrates us by making bad choices (leaving a sleeping Milla at the top of a city building), but we root for him to comfort Milla. One who can’t seem to do that, despite her fevered attempts is mother Anna played with fragile despair by the quivery Davis. At any moment her prescription pill produced panic will melt her into a shrieking shrike. Which agitates her devoted but addled hubby Henry, who’s played by screen vet Mendelsohn as a sweaty everyman overwhelmed at all that life has thrown at him. It’s a testament to his range that he expertly can go from a Star Wars villain and a Marvel “movie-verse” mainstay to a fellow desperately trying to keep from falling apart as he tries to plug the holes of his rapidly sinking ship that is his life (his water bailing can’t hold it afloat). He’s solid as are the eccentric comedy turns by Barclay and Das.
Shannon Murphy directs the screenplay from Rita Kalejais (based on her stage play) with a light touch, knowing when to get “tight” on the actors for an emotional close-up and when to take several steps back so we can drink in all the actions and their surroundings (the Aussie locales are quite inviting). Unfortunately, the leisurely pacing begins to wear out the viewer as the film lurches from one big kitchen table shouting match to the next. Attempts are made to lighten the mood with the Toby and Shaun subplots which never really “pay off”. Plus the film wraps up with a “twist-around” flashback whose purpose seems to try and end the tale on an upbeat note but feels like a frustrating falsehood for the characters we’ve followed for nearly two hours. In that sense, despite some good performances, BABYTEETH just doesn’t have much “bite”.
2 Out of 4
BABYTEETH opens in selected theatres and is available as a Video-On-Demand on most cable and satellite systems along with many streaming apps and platforms