When it was announced that the March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women were being played by Saoirse Roman, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen, the reaction of even the most cinema savvy people was ‘who is Eliza Scanlen?’. Well based on this film, and indeed Little Women, this isn’t a response that hearing her name is going to get for too much longer. The twenty one year old Australian actor is just superb in Babyteeth and despite the cast featuring some of her country’s best character actors in Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, she is totally the star of this film. Her performance as Milla, an outwardly confident teenager living her life with a life threatening illness, is by turns funny, charming, quirky, emotive and quietly powerful and is consistently and utterly captivating.
With its story built around a young girl with cancer, the film that invites the most obvious comparison is The Fault in Our Stars but The Fault in Our Stars wishes it was this movie. That film also had a strong performance from its female lead but, despite its protestations to the contrary, was a cheesy Hollywood telling of this story. Babyteeth feels more honest and perhaps more raw and it certainly has you buying into its relationships more easily and wholeheartedly.
Central to those relationships, just as with The Fault in Our Stars, is the developing friendship between the female protagonist and a boy that she meets. In both cases these young man are unlike most people you would meet but whereas there he was smug and full of affectation, contributing to most of the films failings with realism, here he is selfish and untrustworthy, driven by drug addiction and unable to function in line with social norms. Watching Milla fall for this self destructive character while being destroyed by disease herself is a strange but delicate mix of hope and frustration and is one of the tightropes deftly walked by the perfectly controlled storytelling, as is his understated and tentative journey from being poisonous to being sweet.
Of course this guy causes issues for Milla’s parents too, desperate as they are to give her all she wants but majorly concerned by her choices. Laura Dern was excellent as the mother in The Fault in Our Stars but she was always defined by this paternal role whereas Milla’s mum and dad, played by Mendelsohn and Davis, have their own personalities and agency outside of their support and love for her.
At the heart of everything is Eliza Scanlen though and despite the subject matter she, and the writer and director are able to infuse the movie with a real beauty and a touching celebration of life.
Beyond even this, first time movie director Shannon Murphy also fills the screen with brilliant imagery and framing and shows great command of various cinematic devices. It is an incredible debut for a film maker and I have no doubt that she, like Scanlen, is going to go to great places from here. Murphy has done a lot of TV directing including on Killing Eve, although her two episodes were in the inferior series three. (Having said that she did call the shots on that excellent episode where Villanelle went back to see her family in Russia.)
I thought Babyteeth was magnificent and even though it put me through the ringer a bit, I am so pleased to have seen it. It is so rewarding, you should see it too.
The Ripley Factor:
It almost seems like a distraction to talk about it in this case but it’s kind of the blog’s thing so I will say that there are no issues with the representation of women in this film. As previously suggested it is essentially a young women’s story but also gives due attention to all those around her, irrelevant of gender. The camera hangs on Scanlen but there is no objectification and while it may not be a feminist movie it is certainly a humanist one.