Milla is a teenager, she lives with her parents Henry, a psychiatrist, and Anna, former musician and stay-at-home mom. She’s at the train station, dressed in a uniform, waiting for the train to school with her friends, and she’s also seriously ill. On the platform she meets Moses, a few years older than her. He’s been kicked out of his house and he barely gets by selling drugs. What starts off as an unlikely encounter turns into a friendship that will change them and the people around them.
I must confess that it’s not easy for me to talk about a movie like Babyteeth, presented in competition at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Memories of people that are not there anymore resurface, and with them the pain, the sorrow, the suffering. That is why making films like Babyteeth is incredibly difficult. Take one single misstep and the whole movie falls apart; write one single tone-deaf line and the viewing experience becomes unbearable. Babyteeth, made by first-time Australian director Shannon Murphy and written by Rita Kalnejais, does not make that mistake, and that is the reason why it has been the most pleasant surprise of the entire festival.
Films on terminally ill characters can very easily fall into tear-jerker territory, crippled by melodrama and manipulative directorial choices. This little Australian indie movie does the opposite: it avoids easy tears, it is respectful of its characters, and it is very sensitive of its subject matter. As viewers, we witness the life of these characters, with all their virtues and flaws, guided by a director who does not judge them, but who accompanies them through the dark tunnel they’re about to get in. It’s a film about love: the love of two parents for their daughter, the love of a girl in spite of the terrible circumstances, the love of a boy who’s only know starting to learn about it. Effusive without being sugary, Babyteeth is pervaded by a magical atmosphere, filtrated by the point of view of Milla. The most adult voice in the film, Milla is hellbent on experiencing life before it is taken away from her, and she does it with incredible strength. Eliza Scanlen’s portrayal of Milla is a revelation: sweet and authoritative, she commands the screen with powerful eyes and piercing voice, fraught with hope against all odds and the desire of a fully lived life. It’s the performance of an actress on constant rise.
Babyteeth is as much about Milla as it is about her parents. Henry and Anna are two parents trying to make sense of what is happening to their daughter and to their family. How do you deal with that? They first try to control the course of events, but they soon realize that it’s not possible. It is at that point that they become movingly loving figures, who hold their daughter’s hands, making her feel their infinite love until the very end. It’s the extraordinary performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis that make Henry and Anna not just two fully believable characters, but two people who actually exist.
Standing on a masterful script that balances comedy and drama in a perfect blend of tones, Babyteeth is a magnificent portrayal of love, life, death, and everything in between.
This review is from the 76th Venice International Film Festival.