There’s few things more unfair than cancer.
It’s a particularly cruel demon, a greedy and indiscriminate condition that cuts lives too short and too harshly. Perhaps cancer’s worst sin is its tendency to provide hope that it quickly snatches away; the cycles of remission cut every bit as deeply as the initial blow, if not even more violently. This is the tragic reality for many of those with cancer and their families. The long process of your own body turning against you prepares you for your end, but are you ever really prepared?
This question lies at the core of Babyteeth, a seemingly familiar tale of the repercussions of cancer that, like the disease itself, consistently upends your expectations of what’s to come next. On paper, the plot sounds like a potentially disastrous after-school special: after her cancer reappears, young schoolgirl Milla (Eliza Scanlan) acts out by falling in love with troublesome drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), much to the concern of her already crumbling parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis). When it becomes clear that Moses is the only thing that makes Milla happy in the midst of her worsening condition, Henry and Anna decide to tolerate his uneasy presence in their lives, sending the family on a journey that leaves no one unscathed.
It’s clear from the get-go that there’s any number of ways this film could go horribly wrong, with countless cliches surrounding disease, family drama, and drug abuse floating around waiting to drop on the film like an atom bomb. Miraculously, the film never buys into any of them. Director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais, both making their feature film debuts here, approach this wide swath of hot-button issues here with a tremendous grace. Their characters are so achingly human and well-realized that the film never feels in danger of taking more obvious directions. This is a film about life in all its complexity and hardship, one that refuses to accept our joy and suffering as something you can boil down to a script note.
The film’s success lies largely on the backs of its incredible cast, who all imbue the film with a genuine sense of humanity. Australian cinema veterans Mendelsohn and Davis are as watchable as ever here, with Mendelsohn in particular giving what is perhaps the best performance of his career. Finally free to explore a part free of the scumminess that defines his usual roles, he molds Henry into a sweet, conflicted father on the verge of crumbling at any moment. There’s a tenderness and weariness in Mendelsohn’s eyes that evokes the kind of honest performance too often missing from these sorts of works. Scanlan and Wallace match his excellence, creating a real sense of chemistry that serves as the emotional backbone of the film. Both their characters are a few steps away from stock character territory, but neither actor is willing to let their role be reduced to a trope. Scanlan, soon to be introduced to the wider world with a lead role in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, ensures Milla is never defined by her disease. She’s a layered, complicated girl who’s already lived through more lifetimes than most, and Scanlan wholeheartedly captures her duplicity. Wallace also protects Moses, easily the film’s trickiest character, by similarly giving him depth not usually afforded to so-called criminal characters. Moses consistently makes the wrong decisions, but Wallace plays as if in a constant state of guilt over the consequences of his actions. His performance is a far cry from the heartless, insensitive depictions of addicts that the film initially appears to be emulating.
All these touching performances are guided by the tender hand of Murphy, who proves herself to be a visually dynamic director that doesn’t sacrifice sensitivity for aesthetics. She has a real eye for shooting actors, blocking them in consistently eye-catching ways that never detract from their performances. Every visual choice Murphy makes has a distinct purpose that is always in service of deepening the film’s emotional impact, whether it’s highlighting the resonance of a performance or the beauty of a silent moment. The film so confidently avoids the temptation of stereotyping because she recognizes the responsibility of treating her all characters with equal levels of reverence and respect.
As with cancer itself, it’s impossible to prepare yourself emotionally for the surprises Babyteeth has in store for you. What makes it so special is how it revels in the unpredictability, acknowledging the profound beauty that can come from facing the undefinable. Murphy and Kalnejais know that while it’s impossible to avoid pain when it comes to the final days of our lives, that pain doesn’t have to be without meaning. It’s a rare thing to see a film tackle that idea and not crumble under its own weight. It’s even rarer to find one made with such intelligent, moving grace.