movie review

Babyteeth Is Not Your Standard Cancer Romance

A terminally ill teenage girl falls in love with a junkie in Shannon Murphy’s sweet but unsentimental directorial debut, now available on VOD. Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films

Moses (Toby Wallace) is a love interest drawn in equal parts from a teen’s erotic imagination and a parental nightmare. He’s a 23-year-old junkie who looks to have been sleeping rough since his mother kicked him out of her house. When he whips off his shirt, which he does with reasonable frequency, you can practically see the accrued crust of weeks of dried sweat on his skin. He’s covered in scraggly tattoos, half of which — like the “Le Loup” scrawled across his cheekbone — look like stick-and-pokes, and he sports a mullet he gave himself with a pair of dog clippers. He’s gorgeous because of these things rather than in spite of them, because he treats his rangy beauty so carelessly and because he seems determined to burn through it as quickly as possible. The first time Milla (Eliza Scanlen), the 16-year-old girl around whom all the characters in Babyteeth orbit, encounters Moses on the train platform on the way to school, she gets a nosebleed like she’s an anime character overcome with desire. She gazes up at him from the ground, and the camera replicates her poleaxed perspective as he hovers solicitously over her before asking for money.

Milla is smitten, but the explanation behind her reaction is less metaphorical. Milla has cancer, and things like nosebleeds have been a regular part of her short existence. Babyteeth is the first feature from filmmaker Shannon Murphy, and was written by Rita Kalnejais, and it’s both an extension and a repudiation of a genre that’s been dubbed, in its book form, “sick-lit.” It’s a genre that, at its worst, has a tendency to luxuriate in and romanticize the tragedy of a life getting cut short. Milla is, yes, ethereal and angry and probably dying, an angel-faced embodiment of teenage mortality whose middle-class parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), flutter uncertainly nearby, unsure as to whether they should be sheltering their daughter or pretending that everything’s fine. But Babyteeth isn’t interested in reveling in what Milla stands to lose out on. Instead, it leans into her courtship of Moses, who’s bemused to find himself the object of her persistent attentions no matter how unfit a romantic prospect he demonstrates himself to be. The first time they meet, she gives him $50 to have dinner with her family. The second time is after he’s caught breaking into their house to look for pills.

It’s not that Milla doesn’t see these actions for what they are — signs of someone in the grip of addiction. It’s that they’re incidental to the feelings of first love she’s surrendering herself so wholeheartedly to. Milla’s been carrying on as usual for the sake of her parents, dutifully sawing away at the violin because Anna, a pianist who’s given up the piano, wants her to. A scene in which a classmate asks to try on Milla’s wig because she wants to see how she’d look with hair extensions emphasizes the loneliness of Milla’s situation. Moses doesn’t just jolt her back into actually engaging with the world, he inspires her to drop the pretense that she’s still readying for an adulthood she’s unlikely to reach. In her family’s tastefully bourgeois household, in which both Henry and Anna have been secretly flirting with their own more socially acceptable versions of substance abuse, love has mainly been expressed in aspirations for the future — in music lessons and exam prep. Moses, sweet as he turns out to be, is an entirely inappropriate person to build a relationship with. But that doesn’t matter when Milla wants him, greedily and desperately, and her parents find themselves having to relinquish their hangups and instinctive reactions for the sake of their daughter’s happiness.

Murphy succeeds in making her non-maudlin take on a mostly maudlin format in large part because of Scanlen, whose filmography has ended up being shaped by sickness, courtesy of her recent roles as Beth in Little Women and Amma in Sharp Objects. The 21-year-old actor plays Milla as a character defined not by sentimentality but by hunger, the audience a co-conspirator she occasionally makes fourth-wall-breaking eye-contact with. She’s ready to devour the experience of being in love for the first, and maybe last, time, the pain as essential as the delight. Babyteeth is an impressive debut, and one that features some momentous work from David and Mendelsohn as characters who’ve been splintering inside and refusing to let it show, even to one another. If there’s a complaint to be made about it, it’s only that it feels like another sign of a stylistic trend that’s inexorably cohering, as seen in other recent (and enjoyable!) work like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and like Killing Eve, a show Fennell wrote for and that Murphy has directed episodes of. It’s a brand of millennial pink darkness, with edgy thematic choices deliberately paired with a hyper-feminine, Instagram-ready aesthetic — like the chapter markings that punctuate Babyteeth, “RELAPSE. MILLA RESTARTS CHEMO” floating over her newly shorn head in a sans-serif font in pastel purple. It’s effective, this contrast, but also feels a little easy, a little dependent on subverting assumptions about white girl daintiness and the expectation that it’s antithetical to emotional depth. These characters can hurt and kill and contain ravenous desires too — and it doesn’t feel like that should be surprising.

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Babyteeth Is Not Your Standard Cancer Romance