Terminal teens have become fairly common in contemporary young-adult romances, from The Fault in Our Stars (Shailene Woodley has cancer, falls in love with Ansel Elgort), to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Olivia Cooke has leukemia, falls in love with Thomas Mann), to Five Feet Apart (Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse both have cystic fibrosis, fall in love with each other). Some movies, like Me and Earl, handle terminal illness thoughtfully, but many others use it solely as a gimmick, romanticizing death and ignoring the actual difficulties of sickness.
So Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy in her feature debut, is a breath of fresh air for the subgenre. The film, which stars Eliza Scanlen as a teenager with an unspecified form of cancer, hits some predictable beats, but Rita Kalnejais’ script (based on her stage play of the same name) and Murphy’s directorial voice make the story seem brand new.
The movie’s opening scene sets the tone for everything that follows: 16-year-old Milla (Scanlen) silently considers suicide. As she stands in a train station, waiting for the train home from school, she stares down at the tracks, contemplating stepping in front of the next train to arrive. She’s only shaken out of her reverie when Moses (Toby Wallace), a tall, tattooed, rat-tailed young man resembling a taller version of Shia LaBeouf’s American Honey character, accidentally barrels into her. It’s immediately clear he’s a chaotic force: when her nose starts bleeding, he wrestles her to the ground to take care of her, taking off his shirt and using it to mop up the blood. Immediately afterward, he asks her for money, then refuses to take anything, because the one bill she has is too much. His confidence and fearlessness make him attractive to Milla, but also make it difficult to tell why he’s interested in her. He’s 23, but Milla never seems to question their difference in age. As their relationship progresses, though, everyone else around them does wonder: Is he just taking advantage of her?
Babyteeth’s story chapters are denoted through occasional text on the screen (“When Milla brought Moses home to meet her parents,” “Love,” etc.). They’re the movie’s most heavy-handed element, but they’re excusable because the rest of the film is so subtly made. Nobody delivers exposition. Characters don’t say more than they need to. The audience is expected to put the pieces together on their own. The lack of narrative hand-holding helps the film feel more real, and waters down the Tumblr-ready aesthetic of the chapter titles.
That insistence on keeping dialogue relatively spare rather than overtly walking the audience through the story makes the more stereotypical beats feel less labored than they might otherwise. (Like Moses running away because the stress of taking care of Milla becomes overwhelming, for instance, or Milla dealing with the change in how people see her after she begins wearing a wig.) Cinematographer Andrew Commis uses a handheld camera to catch characters either in extreme close-ups, or with swathes of negative space around them. He lends the proceedings a sense of immediacy, especially as faces weave in and out of the frame, putting the focus on the timbre of the dialogue and on body language.
Scanlen is magnificent, channeling Milla’s frustration into her sometimes-demonic expressions, and her physicality, as, in a fit of anger, Milla writhes like someone possessed. Rather than demurely accepting her death and becoming someone for everyone else to project upon, Milla does her best to defy her failing body, sometimes even staring directly into the camera, directing her rage at the viewer, too.
Circling nervously around the two of them are Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), who don’t know what to make of Moses, but more importantly, don’t know how to deal with Milla’s progressing illness. Babyteeth bucks yet another storytelling convention by having Milla’s parents be just as adrift as she is, rather than having them around solely to deliver platitudes about moving on and treasuring what life you have. They’re already reckoning with grief, and how best to live normal lives with the specter of Milla’s death looming over them.
Most of the film sees the four characters together, emphasizing both familial and romantic love even when Milla and Moses are most prominently in the spotlight. Their budding relationship is the film’s ostensible plot, but there’s no sense that it’s all leading to some grand, romantic denouement. Instead, the focus is domestic, as Murphy and Kalnejais spend most of their time fleshing out the little family and the way their lives intertwine. There’s no overarching moral or saccharine point; by exploring these characters’ lives as truthfully as possible instead of focusing on Milla’s cancer, they make Babyteeth into the most powerful cancer movie in recent memory.
Babyteeth will be available on VOD beginning June 19.