Monday, 3 August 2020

Babyteeth (2020) - Movie Review



Aussie filmmaker Shannon Murphy is the latest director to make their initial step into the cinematic realm through a coming-of-age story. It’s also the latest of a thankfully-increasing number of female-focused stories in this sub-genre. Not that either of those descriptors really end up doing this work justice. One of the side effects of watching so many bloody movies is that, naturally, you’ll come across a lot of story ideas and techniques being repeated. Not out of deliberate mimicry (most of the time, at least), but because there are only so many ways to tell these kinds of stories. Enter this film, which leaves just about every other coming-of-age film in the dust.

For a start, this is about as perfect as Australian casting gets nowadays. Like, everyone here is basically playing to type at this stage (save for those for whom this is their first outing), but that only ends up highlighting this singular film as the peak of their respective types. Eliza Scanlen as Milla is still in quiet innocence mode from Little Women, but as arguably the most ‘together’ of all the characters here, she is spellbinding in her efficacy. Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis as her parents… well, I could bring up Mendelsohn’s frequent villain casting nowadays and Essie’s bone-scraping maternal role in The Babadook as the precedent for this, but the sheer fact that they have finally been paired together like this is more than enough. Even Emily Barclay’s supporting role as a suburban white-trash mother-to-be harkens back to her homewrecking hall of fame turn in Suburban Mayhem.

It is here where we reach the first piece of brilliance with this production: The story clich├ęs. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Whatever typical progressions are expected from any of the character types here, from the father with a wandering eye to the pill-popping mother to the precocious teenaged daughter to the bad-boy love interest, Rita Kalnejais’ scripting seems to take incredible zeal in swerving the other way every single time. And it all starts with Milla, who is basically the protagonist of a sick-lit romance, in cancer remission when the film’s narrative begins. Except the word ‘cancer’ isn’t used once in its two-hour runtime. It makes for the least clinical approach to teenaged illness I’ve seen in years, making for an astoundingly refreshing reprieve from just how PSA fourth-wave YA adaptations can get; Five Feet Apart, this ain’t.

That last point is partly to do with how the medical information is treated (namely, there’s barely any of it here), but it’s also because of how the romance shapes up on-film. Milla ends up in a relationship with Toby Wallace’s Moses, a 23-year-old drug dealer… and Milla is still in Year 10 of high school. Here’s where the next interesting point crops up: There are absolutely no judgments made about said relationship. It treats teenaged sexuality (which, hell, barely any of this even qualifies as; it is genuinely closer to romantic love than anything else) in the same way that Aussie classics like Puberty Blues did, using it as an example of our cultural attitudes towards sex, rather than being sanctimonious about how they ‘should’ be.

Through that, it reaches a level of poignancy and appeal to realism that… I honestly don’t think any of its contemporaries have even gandered at yet. Hell, this is just that good that it retroactively makes films like mid90s look artificial as fuck. It touches on a lot of dark ideas, most of which within the Venn diagram overlap between coming-of-age and sick-lit, but does so in a way that pulls precisely zero punches. The anger, the helplessness, the frequent retreating to chemicals to deal with the world (itself making for some interesting commentary on modern psychiatry); it amplifies the creeping effect of Lady Bird in how it all unfolds so steadily, you don’t even notice that you’re feeling bittersweet triumphant until you’re in it up to your brow. It treats the process of coming-of-age like, well, losing your baby teeth: Painful, a bit grotesque depending on how you look at it, not guaranteed to happen at the same time for everyone, and while it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself, that’s only because it’s making room for something bigger.

The closest this gets to a more film-y approach to its subject matter (outside of Andrew Commis’ breathtaking cinematography, that is; all the moods are in this thing, I swear) is in its treatment of music. Yep, this leaves even Dan The Automator in the dust, as the use of soundtrack here goes even further than Booksmart. Starting out with a violin-heavy rendition of The Stranglers’ Golden Brown (setting up the pharmaceutical edge remarkably well in the process), music and even dancing is recurrently shown as a means for the character to bond with each other; kind of like the favourite rapper lists in Top Five. And with music this achingly beautiful, not to mention the Sudan Archives needle drop (Stones Throw represent!), that ends up adding to the heaviness that goes into a lot of the character interactions here.

This has got to be one of the most refreshing things I’ve seen all year. It’s a coming-of-age story that manages to show up just about every other example I’ve covered on here, and it’s an arguable sick-lit romance that shows a deftness of touch even the better examples couldn’t muster. A film that is this ostensibly familiar, yet wholly unique to itself, is a hell of a trick to pull off, especially in a feature debut for its director, writer and (arguably) lead actor. But between Eliza Scanlen’s incredible performance, Rita Kalnejais’ marvellous writing, and Shannon Murphy’s unshakably confident turn in the director’s chair, they manage to pull it off and make one hell of a feature in the process.

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