Young-adult romances are often so stifled by genre conventions that Babyteeth immediately feels distinctive just by mashing several different romance types together. It’s partially about a well-behaved teenage girl named Milla (Eliza Scanlen from Sharp Objects) who falls for a drug-dealing bad boy named Moses (Toby Wallace), much to the chagrin of her well-to-do parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). The extent of their disapproval becomes clearer when it’s revealed that Milla is also seriously ill, and Moses provides her with temporary respite and distraction, like a dirtbag variation on The Fault in Our Stars. On top of the class-crossed romance and disease-related tragedy, there’s also a touch of addiction drama; Moses takes drugs as well as selling them, while Milla’s parents have their own substance-related issues.
If this sounds like a soapy, melodramatic mess, it doesn’t play out that way. Or at least, not often. Director Shannon Murphy, who helmed a couple of Killing Eve episodes, is making her feature directorial debut with tricky material, and resists any temptation to wear down the characters’ rough edges. All four of the leads are nursing their own forms of pain, and all four actors key into their mixtures of love and anguish – especially the always great Ben Mendelsohn, playing a dad who’s clearly pining for a situation where his disapproval of Moses might feel simple and fully justified. Elsewhere, the movie is wise about Milla’s understanding that her unreliable sort-of boyfriend may not be worthy of her long-term affection (and may not need to be).
Murphy colours Milla’s world in verdant greens and yellows (plus a turquoise wig for the heroine herself), an eye-catching mix of natural beauty and sickly tones that resembles a swimming pool covered in overgrowth. She directs individual scenes that come alive with dreamy possibility, as when Milla and Moses have their first chance meeting on a train platform, and scenes that vibrate with bittersweet disappointment, as when Milla stays out all night attending a meagre, realistically underpopulated dance party. Broken into evocatively titled chapters and juxtaposed alongside each other, these vignettes are unusually attuned to the up-and-down emotional rhythms of life in extreme emotional conditions.
Those ups and downs do occasionally become a bit repetitive, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Murphy is trying to extract tears, gasps, or discomforting laughs. A late-going attempt to bring all of the supporting characters together as one makeshift family strains credulity for the sake of narrative convenience. It’s an understandable concession to neatness in a movie that’s more often gratifyingly messy. Despite some familiar ingredients, Babyteeth is unpredictable in a way that few big-screen romances manage.
- Director: Shannon Murphy
- Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis
- Release date: August 14