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LUMI x Babyteeth

By Zara Jackson, LUMI Programmer

01 September 2020

Zara, one of the first generation of LUMI Programmers, rates Babyteeth, Shannon Murphy's genre-expanding debut.

LUMI x Babyteeth
*Beware there are some spoilers*

Babyteeth centres around a teenage girl, Milla, a talented violinist who meets an older boy called Moses in an "other side of the tracks" type romance set against the backdrop of the biting reality of terminal illness, mental health and addiction. It is the directorial debut for Shannon Murphy and the feature is set in her native Australia. Eliza Scanlen (Little Women, Sharp Objects) stars as Milla and Toby Wallace's portrayal of Moses earned him the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival.

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Babyteeth shies away from conventional portrayals of the ‘coming of age’ drama and instead gives you something to sink your teeth into both visually and audibly, from the first time we see Moses as he literally crashes into Milla and her life, to the immediacy of the characters and the heady perspective of youth. Colourful captions throughout the film give us an insight into situations, locations and emotions being felt which is an enjoyable addition. The font and colours don’t feel out of place and the frequency and timing of the text in places adds to the comedy.

As for the title, Milla informs Moses (at the first meeting he has with her parents over dinner) that she has one baby tooth left and that it is a rare occurrence for someone of her age. The sense of Milla’s immaturity is highlighted when Moses confidently announces that he is 23 and we are told Milla is in the 10th grade. Her mother Anna, played by Essie Davis (True History of the Kelly Gang) is especially prone to 'baby-ing' Milla, panicking if she hasn't heard from her or she has been out late. Her father Henry, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) starts by warning Moses off, assuming his background and attitude will negatively affect Milla but as the film progresses, the parents soon stop trying to keep the pair apart and succumb to letting Moses stay in their house so that they can feel more in control of the situation. Sharply observed interactions and naturalistic dialogue propels the story as well as a lot of hand-held camera work, the movement of which is sometimes interrupted by the actors which only heightens the authenticity and freshness of the imagery. The acting is uninhibited and nuanced, it feels like the script had a lot of room for additions and subtractions and the sincerity of the dialogue it is keenly felt.

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The characters of Milla and Moses seem bonded to something unexplainable in each other and the film expertly juxtaposes the wild freedom of youth with the warmth and comfort of family. The 'bad boy' character of Moses is shown to be vulnerable and honest, even in his betrayals, whereas Milla who is shown to be more soft and timid at the beginning finds a side of herself that is strong and unapologetic. On the whole, the "young love" aspects of the narrative are not played as a stereotypical romance and even when it is, there is a depth and newness to their relationship not often seen in this genre. The movie subverts the way youth and illness are often portrayed together, which is to say the protagonist here doesn't exhibit joy at being in despair and is honest about her struggles and desires in a truly authentic adolescent way.

The family home is an affluent and aesthetically pleasing paradise, the plants and foliage complimenting the inter-cut imagery of birds, the sky, the waves on the beach and the local neighbourhood throughout the film. The imagery is always colourful but even the music hits like a heartbeat, some of it screams to the audience like a music video for a pop group and the classical music elements strike an emotional chord but in a more visceral way. Her violin teacher, who she often scoffs at, remarks that her playing has changed midway through the film and it is inferred that being in Moses’s company is the cause in a typically ‘teenage dream’ type realisation. In keeping with this theme, there is a reference to the film Grease when a friend of Moses refers to Milla as "Sandy" as she arrives at their basketball court after sneaking out of her house; she has on an outfit that is quite far removed from her school uniform or her usual oversize t-shirt and shorts combination and is showcasing a new blonde wig. Much like the character of Sandy in Grease and her ‘transformation scene’ at the end of the film, Milla is trying something new to appeal to a certain side of Moses.

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Other films have tried to capture the essence of what it is like to live with a terminal diagnosis but in this instance the word "cancer" is hardly mentioned, it is referred to as a 'relapse' or 'the nausea' with the focus instead on the visual elements of Milla’s hair loss and an occasional nose bleed. Her mother Anna has mental health problems of her own but keeps insisting all she wants is for Milla to 'get better' and 'be okay' as she swallows another prescribed blue pill. It is more sweet than bitter though, as it balances humour and pathos in a way that won't leave you with a cavity. We are increasingly made aware of how Milla sees the world, whether we are shown what she is looking at or we linger on her expression. She frequently looks at the camera too as if we are in on the joke and participating in the action of the scene. By seeing the world through Milla’s eyes, you are left with an appreciation of the people around you and the experiences you have had in a very genuine way. When her baby tooth finally falls out near the end of the story, she has transcended simply being a schoolgirl looking for a prom date and has learned from those around her what it means to really live.

Babyteeth is screening at QFT until Thursday 10 September. Book tickets here.

Zara Jackson is part of the LUMI Programmer collective, a group of creators who curate, run and host film events and produce things designed by and for people under 25.