In Babyteeth, the feature-film debut of director Shannon Murphy, chaos and order exist as complements instead of opposites. The events of the story are not strung together with conventional clarity, but the repeated use of section titles insists there is intentionality in their structuring. Characters often make odd, spontaneous choices, but they do so in patterns, and the manner of their behavior can be reliably predicted. Emotional currents smash together and pull us sharply in different directions, but they are so clearly the product of willpower, a conscious choice by the protagonist to experience her story on her own terms. According to the film, a random world offers flashes of meaning and insight for those present enough to catch them, and the viewing experience very much reflects that dynamic.
Babyteeth begins as Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenager fighting through cancer, meets Moses (Toby Wallace), a small-time drug dealer in his early twenties, and falls for him hard. Her parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and former pianist Anna (Essie Davis), disapprove of her choice for a first love but make room for their relationship, adding their suspicion of Moses to the list of things they set aside to make their daughter as happy as they can. Murphy focuses on the cracks that form in these relationships under that kind of pressure, her film curious to explore what the collision of love and illness can do to a person, a marriage, and a family.
Murphy builds into her film what seems to be a conflict of genres, emerging from Milla’s desire to turn her tearjerker drama into a romantic comedy, and the union of these forces is not always a smooth one. The jumpy structure often juxtaposes the two tones instead of blending them, and the emotional roadmap can be difficult for the audience to follow, leaving them a little too alienated. When Murphy does let moments breathe, however, they can be moving, funny, and insightful, reaching highs that make her aspirations for Babyteeth crystal clear. The cast is luckily more consistent, with all four of the main actors giving fully embodied performances that do a lot to carry the viewer through the sections that don’t quite coalesce, and it’s no coincidence that the film’s best sequences put them all in the same room.
Perhaps Babyteeth’s greatest strength is its natural subtlety, built into the script and maximized by the actors. Valuing emotional truth over information, the dialogue wastes no time on exposition and instead tasks the actors to communicate much by saying little. Through carefully calibrated gestures, glances, and intonation, they speak to each other with the weight of their shared histories behind them, and even though the film does not tell those stories, just knowing they exist is enough to make the characters feel richly fleshed out. Forcing the audience to feel their way through each scene to discern what is happening locks us into the present moment alongside the characters— who sometimes figure things out more slowly than we do. A pair of standout sequences have one parent instinctively grasp something about their daughter and let us watch the other struggle to catch up, and the nuances in their diverging reactions are brilliantly, achingly human. Though she occasionally obscures with too much formal flash, what works in Babyteeth is more than enough to suggest Murphy has some truly striking films ahead of her.