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Australia 2019
Directed by
Shannon Murphy
118 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Babyteeth

Director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature film (she previously and since has worked in television) is a marvellous effort, on the one hand acknowledging the well-worn tradition of Australian miserablist drama but on the other presenting an insightful portrait of family life in the new millennium.

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a rebellious Sydney-side teenager who upsets her parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), when she brings home a heavily-tatooed young druggie (Toby Wallace). Although not what they would want for their daughter as she is terminally ill from cancer they do their best to accommodate her crush on the boy who evidently does not return her affections and is likely to lead her into all measure of troublbe.

Babyteeth has a recognizable provenance in a raft of films about Australian suburban life from Idiot Box (1996), in which Mendleson starred, to Looking for Grace (2016) but for all that it is refreshingly original and right up-to-the minute thanks to a richly rewarding script by Rita Kalnejais who adapted her own stage play.  Not only does Ms. Murphy do full justice to these qualities but she is ably assisted by Andrew Commis’s cinematography (a couple of bravura moments are a strobe-lit party at which Milla encounters a strangely provocative young woman and the “chapter” entitled “What The Dead Said To Milla" which captures the play of light and dark on Milla’s silent face) and a soundtrack that makes use of contemporary pop music.

Everyone in Ms Kalnejais' script is hurting, not just Milla and her skanky but intelligent boyfriend who has been thrown out of home by his single mother unable to cope with him. Henry prescribes tranquilizers to Anna whilst giving himself the occasional shot of morphine to help him forbear his anxious wife and eventually “fixing up” Moses with drugs in order to keep him around Milla. Henry and Anna's sex life is confined to a quickie every Tuesday in Henry’s office but Henry has his eye on a heavily pregnant woman (Emily Barclay) living across the road. Everyone's life is a mess that no one knows how to get out of. Except for Milla but that is an option no-one really wants to take.  

The cast that brings this volatile dynamic to life are excellent both individually and together. Essie Davis (who made her own stunning debut as a director with The Bababook in 2014) is touching an accurate as the over-wrought mother, a gifted pianist who may have suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of Milla, her only child and who now must cope with her daughter dying. Although, pace Adoration  (2013) I had trouble accepting Ben Mendelsohn as a psychiatrist, time and experience have been good to him and he is an appealingly sympathetic presence in a low-key way.

Understandably most of the attention is on Milla and Moses and both actors are superb, Eliza Scanlen’s Milla is plain-spoken, pluckily pragmatic and thirsty for experience, Williams, a charismatic mix of self-centredness and concealed vulnerability.

Shannon delivers all this with empathy and humour. I was not so sure about the many ‘chapter’ headings. Were they really necessary? Or, for that matter, the pregnant neighbour. All her scenes could have been omitted without loss. Yet there is enough charm and honesty in this film to make such things minor points of contention.

Babyteeth is a wonderful film, both boldly different and immediately recognizable as a portrait of modern family life.

 

 

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