Babyteeth (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Her imperfect romance

As a coming-of-age comedy drama film revolving around a sick young heroine and her unlikely lover, Australian movie “Babyteeth” is much more matured than expected. While it will surely remind you of other similar films such as “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014) or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015), the movie distinguishes itself well as balancing itself well between comedy and drama with considerable humor and sensitivity, and it is certainly a better alternative to the two aforementioned movies.

At the beginning, the movie opens with a Meet Cute scene between its two lead characters. While she is waiting for a train to come into the station along with her two schoolmates, Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen), an adolescent high school girl who has been quite ill due to a serious case of cancer, comes across a lad named Moses (Toby Wallace), and something clicks between them as he shows some little kindness to her. Although he is a junkie recently evicted from his family house by his mother, Milla becomes curious about him, and she even invites him to her family residence for a dinner after letting him cut her hair.

Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), are understandably perplexed with their daughter bringing a stranger into their house, but they try to maintain their cool composure as much as they can, though they have struggled a lot to process the impending possibility of their daughter’s early death. As a psychiatrist, Henry tries to have frank communications with his wife as reflected by their private session in his office, but Anna prefers to be medicated with various types of drugs to suppress her grief, and she is already high when she and others are going to have a dinner.

While well aware of how much her imperfect but caring parents are concerned about her, Milla cannot help but feel suffocated and frustrated – especially when she has to go through another chemotherapy period. She wants to live her life as fully as possible, and Moses looks like someone to bring fun and excitement into her gloomy status in addition to being a possible boyfriend for her, though, as he admits at one point, he is a little too old for her considering their age difference.

In case of Moses, well, he also seems to be interested in getting closer to Milla, but, of course, drugs usually come first to his addicted mind. Not long after his first meeting with Milla’s parents, he breaks into their house for stealing a bunch of drugs in the house, and that leads to an amusingly embarrassing moment between him and Milla’s parents, who eventually let him sleep in the house for one night.

Anna strongly demands to Moses later that he should not see her daughter again, but Moses comes to the house again. While it is apparent that he needs drug again, Milla does not mind spending more time with him, and their mutual attraction becomes stronger when she later elopes with Moses during one evening just for having a big fun just like any young girl around her age, though the following romantic time between them does not end that well thanks to Moses’ carelessness.

While certainly more worried about what is going on between Milla and Moses, Henry and Anna also come to realize that their daughter really needs Moses, so they let Moses stay in the house after making a deal with him. “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”, says Anna, but she and her husband are happy to see their dear daughter brightened up by her growing romance with Moses.

Of course, there later comes an inevitable narrative point where the main characters of the movie come to face the hard truths they have tried to overlook, but the screenplay by Rita Kalnejais, which is adapted from her play of the same name, never resorts to sappy melodrama while clearly recognizing their pain, confusion, and sadness. As a result, they come to us as believable human figures struggling to deal with each own issues, and we come to emphasize more with them even when amused by their human flaws.

The main cast members of the film are all engaging in their respective colorful performances. Eliza Scanlen, who drew our attention with her breakthrough supporting role in HBO TV miniseries “Sharp Objects” and then impressed us again in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019), is simply marvelous as ably conveying to us her character’s poignant emotional journey along the story, and Toby Wallace, who received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress when the movie was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is utterly convincing in a committed performance to remember while also having a palpable chemistry with his co-star on the screen. In case of Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, their nuanced supporting performances remind me again of why they are two of the best performers from Australia, and Emily Barclay and Eugene Gilfedder are also fine in their small but substantial supporting roles.

“Babyteeth” is directed by director Shannon Murphy, who previously made a few short films before making a feature film debut here. In addition to drawing good performances from her main cast members, she did a competent job of handling mood, story, and characters, and I particularly admire how she skillfully and thoughtfully delivers the expected finale without any excess. In my inconsequential opinion, she is another new talented filmmaker to watch, and I guess I can have some expectation on what will come next from her.

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