Babyteeth is the cross-section between a coming-of-age film and one about illness. Baby teeth themselves are a tangible representation of this overlap, a frustrating and uncomfortable transitional period from childhood to adulthood that is solely determined by an arbitrary corporal rate. Director Shannon Murphy (Killing Eve) tackles this intersection on a winding journey equipped with good humor, a few tears, and an unconventional brand of exuberance.
The film centers around the story of Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage girl beginning treatment for cancer. After a heart-racing encounter with a drug dealer and addict, Moses (Toby Wallace), she falls head over heels in love. Her parents, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, are dismayed at the news but are conflicted and preoccupied with their own demons. Together, they rediscover what it means to be alive.
The film’s strengths are found in its tangible qualities. The most striking aspects are the usages of color, light, and sound. While shots are carefully framed, the way the filmmakers carefully choose hues further compliment the screen. Scenes pleasantly lit or fiercely contrasted heighten the narrative with power.
Sound plays an especially potent role. The sound mixing is strong and creates a palpable atmosphere. Despite a few songs, the sound is mostly diegetic. Milla and her mother share a bond as musicians, so the use of music not only connects us to the characters but the characters to each other. The cast each give believable performances and play off one another in an authentic manner. Each character is fully formed and given ample amount of time to explore their own struggles and how it relates to and enhances the larger story.
While each scene works wonderfully in its own bubble, the narrative as a whole suffers from disjointedness. Following threads is difficult until the end, which did its best to recap crucial themes, but cannot be called satisfying in any sense. Life itself is messy and doesn’t neatly follow a three-act structure, but much of the film’s re-contextualization would work better if the script was more streamlined. Unfortunately, this balance between the various style and stories Babyteeth wants to tell, and themes that compound upon themselves, is not stricken during the majority of the runtime. Also, there is a sizeable age gap between the leading love interests. While their story is atypical and the uniqueness is integral to Babyteeth, the normalization of age gaps in the film (especially indie films where unconventional relationships are hyper-romanticized) is not appreciated.
Heart achingly moving and wickedly funny, Babyteeth teaches what it means to experience life before even really beginning it. Through weighted and fully formed characters, it weaves a story of love, loss, and how to cope with unbearable pain. While many coming-of-age indie movies struggle to set themselves apart, this does so by subverting the conventions of the genre at every other turn and introducing a new breath of life. We’ve seen movies about seriously ill teenagers before, but none of them are quite like Babyteeth.