Actress Eliza Scanlen
Australia (117 mi) 2019 d: Shannon Murphy
Based on the play Babyteeth by Australian playwright Rita Kalnejais, directed by Shannon Murphy, an established TV director in Australia, the film is a quixotic, candy-colored journey through the life of a terminally ill teenager, 16-year old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), yet instead of romanticizing the illness with the Hollywood flourish of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), it instead accentuates the thrill of first love, falling for a 23-year old small-time drug dealer, Moses (Toby Wallace), in what must be the most inappropriate relationship ever captured on film, particularly from the parental point of view, yet the experience stirs something deep inside her soul, reawakening dormant passions, elevating the intensity of wonder, seized by a heightened pleasure at being alive, with an odd mix of humor and suffering intertwined throughout, where it’s a disturbing theatrical piece that challenges viewers to appreciate just how precious life can be. To its credit, the astutely written film is unsentimentalized, particularly the wide breadth of humor, where all the characters are deeply flawed and dysfunctional, avoiding cliché’s by constantly balancing trauma with joy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to get past the Columbine syndrome from ELEPHANT (2003), triggering the outcome at the outset, and the anticipated dread that comes with it, which certainly affects an audience’s willingness to invest heavily in these characters, so the entire film feels like a slow death march, despite the quirkiness of the journey. It brings to mind the novel approach of Alfonso Goméz-Rejón’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), which attempts to transcend the genre, but also Gus van Sant’s Restless (van Sant) (2011), an equally intriguing film about a teenager with a terminal illness, shifting the tone from morbidity to the fragility and tenderness of two damaged souls that have no one else on the planet, yet the characters are always fully aware of the tragedy of their situation, while one of the better films about dying remains Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me (2003) starring an unglamorized Sarah Polley as a working class young mother who compiles a modest list of ambitions to finalize before she dies, who heartbreakingly chooses not to tell her family. This film features much more comedy, heavily invested in each character’s openly displayed flaws, including the dysfunctional parents, introduced having quickie sex during a psychiatric session between Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), the practicing psychiatrist and Anna (Essie Davis), his patient who also happens to be his pill-popping wife, writing her prescriptions to keep her happy.
When we’re introduced to Milla, she’s just a kid surrounded by hordes of other high school girls waiting for the subway, but gets rudely pushed out of the way by the eccentric antics of Moses, who gets a rush of exhilaration racing towards the tracks just an instant before the train arrives, stopping suddenly without hurdling onto the tracks. Looking back with a big smile on his face, he seems to be very pleased with himself, with all the girls swarming onto the train except Milla who’s been left behind, blood coming out of her nose, impulsively drawn to this wild extrovert. While her attraction may be absurd coming from a comfortable middle-class background, but he’s not like the other kids, nearly a decade older and liberated beyond belief, seemingly doing whatever he likes while carrying that bad boy persona along with a few highly noticeable tats on his face. She loves the unfiltered version of himself, and with it her yearning for freedom through him, which is in stark contrast to the suffocating conditions of living with cancer, where her routine is attending chemo sessions, draining all her energy. Calling him her boyfriend following a single kiss, Milla is a practicing violinist, where her caring music instructor (Eugene Gilfedder) once thought her mother (his former lover) was the most gifted pianist he ever taught, but she no longer plays, apparently sacrificing a career to be a mother. Added to this mix is the very pregnant neighbor across the street, Toby (Emily Barclay), who seems to flirt with Henry every morning as he’s off to work, discovering she’s remarkably honest, instantly getting right to the heart of the matter, minimizing any social distance, as you feel like you’ve known her forever. Milla bringing Moses home for dinner ends up in a disaster, as they’re afraid he’s going to rob them, finding it inconceivable that their daughter could love this man, particularly after he threatens her mother with a meat prong, quickly making a hasty retreat out the back door. While the parents are protecting her virginal innocence, his amoral inclinations are precisely what she likes about this guy, kicked out of his own home, living on the street, thinking he’s so outside the social mainstream that he won’t care if she’s riddled with cancer. Milla’s persistence with Moses is adorable, quickly penetrating our hearts, as we realize she has absolutely nothing to lose and can play by her own rules, as exasperating as that becomes, as he’s a completely unreliable scoundrel who operates without a care in the world. So perhaps viewers aren’t that surprised when he breaks into their home a week later in an attempted robbery, hilariously caught in the act of searching for food and prescription drugs, sheepishly thanking them as he retreats with a bagful of goodies. Milla invites him to stay for breakfast, a weird turn of events, suddenly enveloped by stillness and a prevailing calm as they’re all assembled next to the pool, with Henry asking Moses if he has a job. “I’m not ready to be functional.”
While the film pales in comparison to the ferocious energy of Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989), though it clearly draws from it, sharing Jane Campion’s longtime producer, Jan Chapman, using a heightened realism, quick looks at the camera, stylistic mood swings, and colorful chapter titles like “Nausea,” “Insomnia,” “Fuck This,” “The Shower Routine,” or “What the Dead Said to Milla,” which break the narrative into a more compact format of extended vignettes, while also allowing viewers to spend some quality time with different characters, creating an energetic flow of oddly designed circumstances that seems fueled by an eclectic musical score of pop tunes, using the colorful razzle dazzle of tUnE-yArDs - Bizness (Official Video) - YouTube (4:24) to help create a vibrant party montage, with Milla escaping into the night taking refuge with Moses. Her innocence, perfectly reflected by Vashti Bunyan - Just Another Diamond Day YouTube (1:47), mixes with a gorgeous romanticism found in Donnie & Joe Emerson’s Baby YouTube (4:10), where musical mood shifts mix with constantly changing colors on the set, mirroring a fluctuating interior world, where surprisingly Milla and Moses are on the same wavelength. While she may demonstrate greater maturity, having a more grounded family background to rely upon, he surprises us all by becoming an extension of her personality, which includes a blue wig after losing her hair. With an upturned air that captures the moment, Mallrat - For Real YouTube (3:16), to the moody refrains of Sudan Archives - Come Meh Way YouTube (2:35), there is talk of attending the prom, but it never develops. And while we rarely see her sick, per se, what we do see is the parental circle hovering around her, adjusting their priorities to hers, becoming sympathetic to her every need, even recommending that Moses move into the house, as clearly he brings her a happiness they simply can’t deny, though they squirm a bit watching them roll around in the back yard, getting overly physical with each other, yet they’re giddy with childish joy. It’s a bit intrusive watching her parents take a lifetime of photographs in just a brief period of time, yet there’s a lovely moment, surrounded by family and friends at an outdoor Christmas banquet, when Milla requests that her mother accompany her in a duet with the piano and violin, which is particularly poignant, filled with an understated eloquence, yet perfectly capturing the melancholic inner lives of all the people gathered. That odd and irreverent coming-of-age drama that attempts to stand out from the rest, this film is about offering a sweet release, briefly spiraling into that painful recognition of the inevitable, yet the concluding chapters are genuinely affecting, as they comment on just how much this experience has brought people together, finally finding solace on the shores of an ocean, a glimpse of the infinite.