Over the last decade, there has been an influx in films and novels about teen romance and terminal illnesses, especially cancer. From Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to Stella Meghie’s Everything Everything, this “boy meets girl with a terminal illness” phenomenon has evolved into something of a genre all to itself, exploring—with different degrees of success and sympathy—falling in love when you are young and dying.
Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth is the most recent addition to the genre, and one that feels far more mature and complex than its young-adult counterparts. But despite its undeniable beauty on the surface, the most emotional moments of Babyteeth are often muddled by its frantic and disjointed storytelling.
Babyteeth centers on Milla (Eliza Scanlen), an Australian teenager with cancer, a set of hyperprotective parents, and a baby tooth she still hasn’t lost. Milla meets what seems to be her polar opposite: 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) who sells drugs, has a rat tail and face tattoos, and like many young white men, carries himself like he isn’t afraid of dying.
Their budding relationship upsets Milla’s parents and disrupts the safe but suffocating environment they have built for her. But Milla’s parents also rarely have a grasp of reality or the repercussions of how they are raising her. Her father (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist who substitutes meaningful dialogue with prescriptions that numb the pain. Her mother (Essie Davis) is his most affected victim, flipping between being too high on painkillers to make sense of what is going on in her own home and pushing her supply to Moses for him to sell.
But Moses and Milla’s relationship, while complicated and bordering on exploitative, blossoms quite beautifully. Scanlen and Wallace have a magnetic chemistry and their characters talk to each other like they are the only people in the universe. Their love plays out in tender montages that feel reminiscent of summer rom-coms, underscored by the experimental pop stylings of Tune-Yards.
One of the film’s standout scenes follows Milla and Moses going to a party together. A slow tracking shot follows Milla as she explores the apartment, lit by projections and multicolor strobe lights, with an effervescent curiosity. Moses gives Milla a chance to actually live, rather than just be alive, as her parents have settled for.
Babyteeth eventually builds up to a powerful climax, but the disjointed path it takes to get there cannot be ignored. Several scenes are labeled with a pastel-colored title, like chapters in a book, that teeter on disrupting the film’s spontaneous and unstructured nature. The film’s strength is in its centralized family unit, and exploring the idiosyncrasies of each character and their relationship to being alive. And yet characters with no real stake in the narrative are spliced in and sometimes fracture the emotional momentum that is built throughout the film’s runtime.
As Murphy’s first feature film, Babyteeth feels raw and unfiltered, but it can also feel directionless and unrefined as a result. But if Babyteeth is a preview of what’s to come from both Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, it is certainly a promising one.
Babyteeth gives its audience a lot to chew on, namely how we think about death, dependency, and agency. It isn’t a film that patronizes its sick protagonist or sees her as less than human because of a diagnosis. She is not cancer personified, she is a human being who wants to experience life in a way she was never allowed to, no matter how ill-advised that may be. It’s a film about taking control of your life when it seemingly has already been dictated for you. v