REVIEW: Babyteeth [2020]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 118 minutes
    Release Date: June 19th, 2020 (Australia)
    Studio: Universal Pictures / IFC Films
    Director(s): Shannon Murphy
    Writer(s): Rita Kalnejais

I’m not ready to be functional.

No matter how prepared we think we are to confront our own mortality, we aren’t even close. This goes for those lucky enough to spend close to a century on Earth, but especially for those who aren’t. And with our own impending mortality comes that of loved ones around us. How do we cope with knowing there’s nothing to do but wait? How do we numb the pain we feel as bystanders in order to help the dying deal with theirs? Ignoring it makes things harder when avoidance is no longer an option. Shining a spotlight on it is to forget the life that still remains. Frustrations inevitably rise, emotions consume us, and we move forward together into uncharted territory too personal for anyone else to truly understand.

Just because others might have done something different in similar circumstances, however, doesn’t mean they cannot relate to the experience. Underneath what may seem like misguided actions that will only exacerbate the bigger picture is a universal drive to give everything you have to providing a compassionately loving environment by looking beyond yourself to acknowledge what your loved one needs regardless of whether those on the outside disapprove. Death doesn’t leave time for taboo or decorum. It doesn’t wait patiently for your dreams to be fulfilled or your regrets to be cleansed before stealing your last breath. So anything you can do to earn one last smile is worth it. Leave your judgments at the door and bask in the priceless light that doing so delivers.

Rita Kalnejais‘ script for Babyteeth will press some buttons as a result, but anyone who says Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) are wrong in their decision-making is only exposing the privilege of never having gone through a tragic undertaking like watching your teenage child die before your eyes. They don’t know the headstrong defiance of fifteen year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) or realize how normal rules meant to provide children safety disappear the moment it’s learned that there’s no escaping oblivion. If Milla doesn’t want to go to school, she’s not going to go. If she wants to hang out with a troubled, older boy who may or may not be using her to raid her psychiatrist father’s prescription cabinet (Toby Wallace‘s Moses), she will.

Because who are you to stop her? What do you have to gain besides her resentment and the potential that she won’t come back? You’d just end up losing your chance to enjoy those sporadic moments of laughter that almost let the despair wash away. You’d be losing your chance to say goodbye—assuming that opportunity still exists, of course. As director Shannon Murphy so expertly opens the film with a sensory experience of ambient noise and Milla’s resolve during a barely foiled suicide attempt, the end is as much in this girl’s hands as God’s. Maybe she doesn’t want to live through the anguish of what might be coming. Maybe she doesn’t want to witness her parents’ slow deterioration knowing her prognosis is partially the cause.

It’s a heartbreaking feedback loop wherein her sadness leads to theirs and vice versa without any exits. So why not rip off the Band-Aid despite the chance that the wound has already healed? Why not make that sacrifice if it means saving them before the cancer destroys everyone in death and life? You can’t even chastise her for thinking this way either—at least I can’t. It needs to be an option that can be viewed as selfless rather than selfish as too many suicides are in first world nations that don’t begin to tackle the psychological trauma we face every day. That Moses bumps her at the moment of truth (his “I saved your life” simultaneously flippant and profound) is therefore less of a miracle than what follows.

Here was a teenager yet to lose her final baby tooth who’s about to be snuffed out of existence before suddenly going on a manic, almost incoherent roller coaster ride of conversations and excitement by a twenty-something, small-time drug dealer who’s obviously been sampling his merchandise. Milla sees fearlessness in Moses’ carefree nature because she sees an electricity she hasn’t felt in who knows how long. We’ll eventually discover that he’s just as afraid as she is thanks to a rough childhood and its current ramifications, but right now he’s merely a stranger who won’t talk her off the ledge when daring to express herself outside of the schoolgirl image thrust upon her in good health. And time with her allows him to forget his troubles too.

Soon we learn that everyone is self-medicating themselves from sorrow. Anna is taking whatever her husband gives her in a bid to quiet the guilt she feels having missed so much of Milla’s childhood because she chose to continue her career as a pianist (something for which she shouldn’t need forgiveness). Henry is detaching himself from the emotions that he has trapped inside by attempting to be his wife and daughter’s objective caregiver rather than the subjective husband and father they so clearly desire. Moses uses drugs to forget whatever it was that left him estranged from his little brother Isaac (Zack Grech) and Milla now uses the adrenaline rush of orbiting his petty criminal world to forget the crippling weight of her inescapable and inexhaustible fatigue.

Does it help? Only if you consider avoidance “help.” What does, however, is having Moses in their lives. Henry and Anna may not approve, but this young man’s presence has brought Milla an energy they didn’t believe they’d ever see again. She starts wanting to go to school with a newfound strength. She talks back to those who deserve it (and those who don’t), dances when the mood strikes, and thinks about going to prom. And with her joy also comes theirs—if they can let the justifiable worry they have about Moses dissolve. The moment they do, though, is the moment when life becomes a bit less futile. The drive to actually live for today suddenly replaces the burden of living only to avoid tomorrow.

Kalnejais writes it all with authentic nuance while Murphy throws convention out the window to pump in classical music (the soundtrack of Anna’s life) and contemporary music (when Milla can let loose) whenever the mood fits while also letting her cancer-stricken lead turn to the camera and break the fourth wall for emphasis. We’re brought into this wildly chaotic few weeks to experience the highs, lows, and in-betweens punctuated by mistakes, lapses in judgments, and well-meaning deceptions. It’s a messy existence that mirrors the unpredictability of life and yet the filmmakers never chastise their characters or moralize their actions. Everyone’s heightened stress and anxiety leads to anger and misplaced desire, but it’s all an effect of being human. Who knows? We might do worse in their shoes.

To live through these types of scenarios is to have an open-mind and listen. You need to recognize what’s working—whether you endorse it or not—and be able to put aside personal issues to let it succeed. You might even learn something about yourself in the process. Maybe Henry, Anna, and Moses will see their own chance at personal redemption through Milla’s impending demise before it’s too late. Because if a teenager’s death provides anything, it’s perspective on what truly matters. Just because they can’t save Milla doesn’t mean she can’t conversely save them. If Scanlen, Wallace, Davis, and Mendelsohn’s performances (all at the top of their game) aren’t enough to prove it, Murphy’s denouement via memory will. We remember our loved ones’ lives, not their deaths.

[1] Eliza Scanlen as “Milla” and Toby Wallace as “Moses” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Essie Davis as “Anna” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Ben Mendelsohn as “Henry” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[4] Toby Wallace as “Moses” andEliza Scanlen as “Milla” in Shannon Murphy’s BABYTEETH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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