Director Shannon Murphy crafts a gripping, wickedly humorous, and ultimately uplifting look at terminal illness with her feature film debut, the Australian offering Babyteeth (2019). This coming-of-age story about a teenage girl stricken with cancer and her first-love experience with a drug dealer is a tragicomedy with a sharp bite.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a 15-year-old high schooler who meets 23-year-old small-time criminal Moses (Toby Wallace) when he attempts to commit suicide by leaping in front of a moving train but accidentally bumps into her, stopping his momentum just in time. They immediately share an “opposites attract” energy, and soon enough, she invites the young man, who has been kicked out of his house by his mother, to her middle-class home. Milla’s father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist and her mother Anne (Essie Davis) is a pianist who has not performed in ages. Henry prescribes a range of antidepressants for Anne, who lives life in the fog created by the drugs.
The clash of cultures is naturally set up to fail, especially after Moses is caught breaking into the family’s home and stealing drugs. Milla’s feelings toward Moses are tough as nails despite her affection for him, and theirs is a tumultuous relationship. Add to that the stress on Milla’s parents with having a dying daughter, and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais, adapting from her own play, mines the awkwardness and tension for equal parts riveting drama and black comedy.
The cast is terrific, with Scanlen (Grace and the TV series Sharp Objects, both 2018) turning in a stunning lead performance. She invests her character with the perfect amount of headstrongness, independence, and fragility, as well as maturity and wisdom that makes her seem more experienced in life than her checked-out father and zoned-out mother. Wallace (Boys in the Trees ) is solid as Toby, adroitly assaying his character with just enough likeability to have viewers want to give him a chance to redeem himself, while knowing that the odds of that happening are low. Mendehlson (Ready Player One  and Captain Marvel ) gives a taut, sometimes crushing performance as a man who tries to appear to hold things together on the outside but is collapsing under the weight of his problems, and Davis (The Babadook  and The True History of the Kelly Gang ) is amazing as always, hilarious when her character is trading bad parenting jokes with her husband, and heartbreaking as she gives up her prescription medicine so that she can be lucid during her daughter’s last days. Fine work from the supporting cast includes Emily Barclay as the family’s pregnant neighbor and Eugene Gilfedder as Milla’s music teacher, who also taught Anne.
Murphy and Kainejais avoid the tropes of “lovers facing a terminal illness” movies for the most part, offering instead a quirky, sometimes acerbic, original take on such subject matter. Candy-colored set designs balance out heavy realities in the world of Babyteeth, and a young woman’s zest for living life as much as possible while she can is lump-in-the-throat inducing in more ways than one. This film is very much a celebration of life rather than a meditation on dying.
Babyteeth, from IFC Films, will be released on 19 June.