First-time director Shannon Murphy is obviously the type of storyteller who, when confronted with a decision that proffers two extremes, will go with the cheekier option. Though this tale of a teenage cancer patient who has mostly given up on life contains the requisite measure of melodrama courtesy of screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, the stakes are constantly being raised by Murphy’s approach to way-out character development and outlandish plot devices that obviate the need to explore the protagonist’s pain and longing, since she has to deal with all this other shit as well. The opening scene, at which point the viewer still may not know about Milla’s (Eliza Scanlen) condition, is a real corker. Waiting on a train platform, Milla is scammed by an older punk named Moses (Toby Wallace) and instead of being mad she falls instantly in love with him, understanding that he’s obviously high on something since, as we soon find out, her own mother is hooked on drugs because she’s bipolar. For her mother, Anna (Essie Davis), obtaining these drugs isn’t a problem because her husband, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist, though he’s conscientious enough to limit her dosage as best he can. Adding to the opening salvo of too-much-information is a scene where Henry and Anna interrupt their regular therapy session for some quick, desperate sex that itself is interrupted.
Where these various vectors lead is predictable and yet when they arrive you can still be surprised. Moses, naturally, takes advantage of Milla’s crush by crashing the family’s nice, suburban Australian home and raiding the medicine cabinet. At this point in Milla’s deterioration, her parents have obviously reached an understanding that she should have whatever she wants (“this is the worst possible parenting I could imagine”), even if Anna still insists that Milla attend cello lessons that she’s mostly given up on, and they convincingly tolerate Moses’s self-interested shenanigans, which, frankly, are pretty funny if also pretty creepy. (Wallace has a bright future as a David Lynch regular.) Though Moses is clearly the tonal crux of the movie, Murphy leaves the character to his own devices and puts all of her thematic money on Milla’s fuck-all attitude and how it affects her parents. It’s a savvy take and one that keeps paying dividends up until the inevitable reckoning with mortality, which involves cliches like losing one’s virginity and actually enjoying it and a misdirected scene in which one of Milla’s classmates tries on her wig just to be mean. Had Murphy been consistent in her bold interpretation of the material she might have jettisoned some of the side business, like the flirtatious pregnant neighbor who tempts Henry, which is not so much gratuitous as it is lacking in sufficient tension. But it says something about Murphy’s convictions that by the time Henry offers Moses free drugs in exchange for him performing an unspeakable act, you actually buy it.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-67127225), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Babyteeth home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Whitefalk Films pty ltd, Spectrum Films, Create NSW and Screen Australia