how to find young love in a hopeless place

  • Dir: Shannon Murphy.  Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Andrea Demetriades. 15 cert, 118 min

The Australian drama Babyteeth has four great characterisations waiting for us, but it’s vital to begin with Milla Finlay (Little Women’s Eliza Scanlen), the gravely ill 15-year-old schoolgirl around whom it all revolves. In the first scene, she’s on a suburban train platform in Sydney, standing apart from the other girls on their morning commute, and staring down at the tracks.

Caught in intimate close-up, it’s a moment of heavy-breathing panic that’s somewhere in the vicinity of suicidal – how close, we don’t yet know. Before she can show us, a rat-tailed, heavily tattooed young stranger called Moses (Toby Wallace) flings himself raffishly in her path. 

You can’t miss Moses, though everyone else has a habit of holding their noses or just fleeing the moment he bounds on screen. When he whips off his grimy floral shirt to help Milla staunch a sudden nosebleed, it involves piling her to the ground in a rather stifling way, and she’s quick to protest that the shirt stinks. Even so, there’s an electricity to the encounter, a sense of two worlds fatefully colliding; an animal attraction.

Milla has some rare form of cancer that could be terminal, but which the film doesn’t waste time diagnosing. It gives us no hospital scenes or kindly doctors doing their best, but keeps its focus on a doomed teenager carrying on with this cruel burden, and two haute bourgeois parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) entwined in a very shaky alliance to protect her from pain, while self-medicating to assuage theirs.

Meanwhile, Moses turns out to be a small-time drug dealer in his early twenties, whose own mother, alienated by his livewire antics, wants nothing more to do with him. On no level is this agent of chaos the companion that Milla’s parents would ideally tolerate, let alone choose, to distract Milla from the ravaging pain of her disease.

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