Babyteeth (2019)

I’ve been trying to figure out why Babyteeth didn’t work for me. This critically-acclaimed – or at least, critically liked – Australian drama might tread through familiar territory (suburban malaise, teen cancer, addiction), but I can’t honestly say its conventionality is what left me cold. Despite subject matter that’s bordering on clichéd territory for Aussie mid-budget melodrama, the film is elevated by a thoughtful screenplay – which deftly trades exposition for suggestion wherever possible – and actors who do their darnedest to transcend said clichés.

Still. The emotional moments didn’t hit. The bonds didn’t connect. The story arc fell flat. For me, at least. Babyteeth never struck me as a bad movie, but it never engaged me enough to become a good one.

I can point to a couple of possible explanations. The first is that the setting never felt true. This is a common problem with films constrained by budgets. You’re trying to convey characters lost in the maze of a bustling community but the location and cast costs don’t really allow for you to communicate that. But Babyteeth’s issues go beyond its reliance on mostly one setting (an incredibly-expensive looking home) and a half dozen characters.

To whit – why is that McMansion opposite the street from a ramshackle domicile occupied by a heavily-pregnant, very bogan young woman (Emily Barclay) who’s rarely seen with a durry in her mouth? It’s not that I don’t believe that that opulent house – owned by psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and his frequently-medicated wife Anna (Essie Davis) – couldn’t have a neighbour like Toby. But their proximity consistently rings false, with director Shannon Murphy demonstrating little interest in contextualising – explicitly or otherwise – how this odd little neighbourhood came to be.

There are other questions. The film begins with our cancer-stricken teen, Milla (Eliza Scanlen, fresh off playing a similarly consumptive young women in Little Women) striking up a bond with anarchic addict Moses (Toby Wallace, doing good work in the kind of role young actors would kill for). She wags school, cuts her hair, the whole rebellious teenager thing. Except we’re given no context to understand if this is out of character for Milla. Private school uniforms and classmates with violin cases only evoke a backstory the screenplay seems disinterested in developing; it’s never entirely clear if Milla is an outcast, a geek, something in between. We don’t need this spelled out to us – but I’d like to feel more confident that the screenwriter (one Rita Kalnejais) has answers to these questions.

I have more nitpicks – why on earth is a family party late in the film attended by a pair of prepubescent boys without parental supervision? – but I’ll leave it there. What’s more worrying is that I was thinking about these nitpicks, letting them puncture the emotional bubble the film was trying to form. I don’t think any of these gripes are the problem in of themselves, but symptoms of Babyteeth’s inability to create its intended atmosphere.

Murphy’s overly-needy camerawork is partly to blame. The actors here are so talented that when we settle in to watch them perform, the film sings. But at the film’s emotional apex, we cut away in some attempt to create emotion in the edit that instead destroys it! The camera swings forward to offer close-ups that overwhelm performances. A nightclub scene attempts to induce drug-induced euphoria through psychedelic imagery, but instead punctuates the aura that Scanlen’s glazed eyes were creating by themselves. When the film is allowed to just be – as in a heartbreaking epilogue – we see Babyteeth’s true potential.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, though. This was the first film I’d seen in a cinema in months – at an early-morning media screening back when it looked like things were going to be back to normal soon enough in Australia – and I wonder if that’s to blame for my lack of engagement. Maybe months away from the cinema has made me fall out of love with cinema a little, made me lose the attention span that made sitting in the dark for two hours such a worthwhile way to spend one’s time.

Or maybe Babyteeth just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I kinda hope that’s the case, if I’m being honest with you.

2 stars

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