Venice 2019: Eliza Scanlen is Superb in Fresh & Funny 'Babyteeth' Film
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2019
A sweet, heartfelt, smart tale of young first love. Babyteeth is the feature directorial debut of Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy, after making a number of shorts and TV series previously. The film earned a spot playing in the main competition line-up at the Venice Film Festival, and it damn well deserves that spot. Babyteeth is a major player, one of my favorite films of the festival. I can certainly admit that I loved it - easily the highlight of this second half of the festival for me. It's way better than I was expecting (watch the first trailer), with one of the best upbeat soundtracks of songs out of any film here. It's not exactly anything groundbreaking, but the way it's presented is so compelling and all the characters are wonderfully complex.
As with any honest story about cancer, the film is about appreciating life and loving life because that is the most important thing. Not holding back on life and not getting in the way moments of joy whenever and however they appear. Babyteeth stars Eliza Scanlen as a young woman who is seriously ill with some kind of cancer (it is named in the film which is fine because it isn't about her being sick). She randomly meets a wild boy named Moses, played by Toby Wallace, who has been kicked out of his house, now just drifting around town and living carefree. At first it seems he's taking advantage of her to score some (prescription) drugs and food, but it doesn't take long for their connection to blossom into something genuinely beautiful and authentic. It's a bright coming-of-age story of tempestuous young love boosted by stellar performances.
Even if we've seen most of this before, it can still be fresh and unforgettable. And it is. The film exceeds on numerous levels, from the performances and focused storytelling, to the song selection and uplifting vibe throughout. Murphy balances levity and genuine humanity with fresh filmmaking, delivering a smart film that is completely satisfying in every sense. While it is humorous throughout, there is a heavy heart at the core of it and the ending hits hard, real hard. It doesn't come off as heavy handed or manipulative, thanks to the skillful filmmaking that dares to be unique, and instead feels like it unquestionably earns the emotions it builds. Ben Mendelsohn, who is almost always fantastic, is at his very best in years playing the heartfelt father in the film - more than his studio movies and that's a relief. Essie Davis also digs deep as the mom.
Babyteeth is built around the theme that "we're all dysfunctional". Everyone has a problem - Milla is sick, her mother is a bit crazy, her father is losing it, her boyfriend is a wacko, even their new neighbor is kooky. But that's the point. At first glance, Moses is the "bad boy" that no parent would ever want their daughter to spend time with. But the film oh so beautifully shows us that there's more than meets the eye, and he's just as "broken" as everyone else, no matter how cleaned up they may seem on the surface. These are all complex characters and we get to spend just the right amount of time with each one of them, exploring their depths without dipping into darkness, instead giving us a taste of that "slice of life" we all know. Not only does this introduce Shannon Murphy as an extremely talented filmmaker, but it's a film we can all lovingly embrace.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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