A very contemporary coming-of-age story in which a seriously ill teenage girl falls for a small-time drug-dealer.
Milla (Eliza Scanlon) is the only child of a prosperous upper middle-class family. She’s a typical pretty modern Sydney schoolgirl except she’s got cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. At the beginning she appears to be contemplating jumping under a train when out of nowhere a rats-tailed ruffian bumps heavily into her and knocks her to the ground. They share a moment: he is struck by the golden lights in her hair, which is actually a wig, and treats her tenderly when her nose starts to bleed. He’s Moses (Toby Wallace) – 23 years old, scruffy clothes, dirty fingernails, scabrous skin. She wags school, they hang out for a while and she invites him home to meet the parents.
Her mother (Essie Davis) is a retired classical pianist. Her father (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist. They live in a leafy suburb with a nice garden and a swimming-pool. Moses is every parent’s nightmare of a boyfriend – surely they wouldn’t let him in?
But they do, and they even allow him to join the family for dinner. We’ve sort of been primed to understand why by the scene in which we first meet them: they’ve just had passionless appointment sex in the room he uses for patient consultations, and afterwards he fetches and hands over the sundry pharmaceuticals – Xanax, Zoloft – his wife has evidently come to depend on. They seem jaded and nihilistic. At the table she even blathers louchely about the pills she’s popped while sarcastically tackling her daughter about missing the after-school pick-up. They are certainly in no position to be judgmental about drugs.
They are not very likeable as parents or even just as people. But as the story unfolds we begin to be less judgmental ourselves: underneath the veneer of hip permissiveness is deep trauma over the plight of their delicate daughter, and uncertainty about how to handle her growing attachment to this young man, who’s quite a bit older than her and so lost to the drug sub-culture he’s been kicked out of his own family and at one point even tries to steal from them.
They are torn between consciousness of their poor parenting and the undeniable reality that he seems to make their poor sick sad child happy.
Babyteeth has had very good reviews from the heavyweight American critics, one of whom places it at the evolutionary highpoint of a string of movies about dying girls starting with Love Story in 1970 and in more recent years encompassing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Fault In Our Stars. The consensus seems to be that Babyteeth has finally nailed this difficult subject with a maturity and lack of sentimentality previously missing from the genre, if it is a genre.
All that said, I should have liked it more than I did. Normally I’m the big sook at the movies, but this time I was the only one not moved to tears, although at one point I got as far as feeling a familiar hot sting in my sinuses. Admittedly, of the three of us, I’m the one with the least horrible experience of cancer, which may well have had something to do with it. It might, although I also believe that it’s different strokes for different folks when it comes to having our tears jerked: I tend to need pathos or relief of suffering or moments of great triumph to do the trick, rather than just unadorned sadness, but in truth it’s a mystery I haven’t yet fathomed.
Whatever, Anne and Libby loved it. Anne loved the style; and indeed the evocation of time, place and character was note-perfect. We all loved the soundtrack.
Interesting spooky coincidence: Eliza Scanlon played Beth in the most recent version of Little Women. Beth is of course the one who died.