Now streaming on Hulu, Babyteeth is a coming-of-age YA-style dramedy based on a stage play — but DON’T JUDGE IT, JUDGYPANTS. I can hear you deep-sighing at “coming-of-age YA-style dramedy” from here. Helming her first feature, director Shannon Murphy has no interest in any of the trappings of these genres. It’s a story about a terminally ill teenager who tests her anxious parents’ mettle when she falls for a stray mongrel of an older manboy. Your expectations will be upended. You can trust me on this one.
BABYTEETH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: There’s the scene When Milla (Eliza Scanlen) Met Moses (Toby Wallace) on Platform 4 (per a descriptive subtitle). She’s in her private-school plaid skirt and he has a tattoo on his face. One imagines their personal odors being polar opposites. Her nose bleeds and he gives her his shirt to soak it up. He also gives her a wonderfully crazy haircut with some dog clippers and she reveals that she still has one of her baby teeth. There’s the scene where Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) have awkward sex on his desk after the movie makes us think she’s one of his psychiatry patients, especially the part where he suggests she take more prescription pills.
Relapse, Milla Starts Chemo is another placeholder and after that, there’s the scene with the “meat prong,” and no, it’s not what you think, perv. Moses sort of weasels into Milla’s family life and she very much lets him, and nobody’s really sure if he likes her or all the pills laying around the house that he steals — and is sometimes given — and then sells. There’s the scene where the new very pregnant neighbor Toby (Emily Barclay) loses her dog and Henry greets her and she says her dog’s name is Henry and that Henry the person has a dog’s name. He soon helps her change a lightbulb.
There’s the extraordinary scene where Moses takes Milla to a dance party, and the uypsetting scene with the morphine, and the lovely scene preceded by the title Just Another Diamond Day, and multiple scenes with the pills. Where is all this going? Well, everything seemed quite unsettled before Moses who by all means should be a shitshow of a human, aimless and homeless but not hopeless or charmless, in numerous earnest ways. There are many wigs, and some talk of the school formal, and no mention of the specificities of her illness that I can recall, and lots of love in many different forms and guises, and no expectations, except maybe just the one.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Babyteeth is so good, you may forget all about the overwrought sincerity of The Fault in Our Stars and the painfully calculated quirks of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Performance Worth Watching: Nobody among this terrific cast takes a conventional approach to character, but as the wastoid scoundrel with an odd charismatic streak, Wallace is extraordinary, full of surprises. This will sound sad, but it is the nature of love that, maybe, the thing his Moses and Scanlen’s Milla share is the feeling of having no future.
Memorable Dialogue: Anna, meeting Moses for the first time: “Lucky for everyone I forgot I’d taken a Zoloft when I took two Xanax.”
Sex and Skin: Two tasteful, realistic scenes with no nudity.
Our Take: Babyteeth left me reeling a bit, especially the final sequence and shot, but in a way that most deep-sob weepers are too sleek and guileless to execute. Its emotion is dense and bitter, but beautiful and poignant, and the moment overwhelms us as the credits roll. Murphy’s manipulation of the narrative is the movie’s way of dealing with grief and pain. The last shot lingers, in all its illustrious melancholy.
These etherealities mightn’t function without Murphy’s artful eye, and Andrew Commis’ cinematography is luscious without being indulgent. The director nurtures a compellingly elusive and pragmatic tone, freeing the cast to interpret their characters as complex and rife with contradictions. These people are messy, funny and sad and fumbling through an impossible situation within a larger impossible situation, and all that within the largest impossible situation of life itself, of love and death and the waves crashing on the shore on a gray day at the beach, when things were happy before they were unbearably sad.
That I keep veering into big-picture grandiosity is a grand compliment to Babyteeth. It absolutely functions as an involving two hours with some superlative fictional human beings — superlative despite their many medications and interpersonal miscalculations, understandable considering, well, you know. There are no weighty scenes of radiation therapy, of cards and flowers in hospital rooms, of openheart conversations between parent and offspring, not even a single mention of the “c” word. The dynamic among Anna and Henry and Milla and Moses is exemplary; comedy and drama come at odd angles. There’s nothing simple or easy here about any of this, and the movie is all the better for it.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Babyteeth is a lovely, lovely film.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream Babyteeth on Hulu