You only get one flush of first love, and it tends to choose you rather than the other way round: For most of us, it’s an experiment, a flight test of the heart, a thing you can afford to get wrong. For terminally ill 16-year-old Milla, however, her first looks to be her only, and not an ideal one at that. Is it true love that draws her to older kamikaze junkie Moses, or just the assurance that his future scarcely looks brighter than hers? Emotional compromise finally begets an overwhelming torrent of feeling in “Babyteeth,” a wickedly perverse and, in time, intensely moving variation on familiar coming-of-age themes that marks an arresting feature debut for both director Shannon Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais.
The most youthful and surprising entry in this year’s Venice competition, “Babyteeth” arrives fully formed in its bite, with a balance of fluorescent stylistic edge and broad emotional accessibility that should attract the attention of larger arthouse distributors. (Jane Campion’s longtime collaborator Jan Chapman serves as executive producer, and indeed the film invites comparisons to the jagged poetry of Campion’s early work.) Murphy and Kalnejais’ collaboration takes a little time to find its tone, beginning as an arch, brittly amusing broken-family comedy that could as easily be titled “Australian Beauty,” before kicking into a richer, less guarded storytelling gear: Any inconsistencies are forgotten by the film’s tear-stained stunner of a final act, which risks high melodrama to honest, lyrical effect. If any Hollywood studios still made adult drama on the regular, they’d be picking up Murphy’s card round about now; as it is, she’s slated to direct the third season of BBC phenom “Killing Eve,” which is not too shabby.
In addition to putting its director and writer on the map, “Babyteeth” also serves as a fully fledged coming-out ball for 20-year-old star Eliza Scanlen, who recently turned heads as the psychopathic sister of Amy Adams’ protagonist in HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and will soon appear as Beth in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” (With any luck, some illness-free parts are in her future too.) She nails a tricky assignment in her big-screen debut, playing both an ethereal otherness and a yearning, immediate, only-too-recognizable adolescent want in the cancer-stricken Milla — as befits a character who has both accepted that she’s not long for this world, and resolved to make herself a little more worldly within it before her time’s up.
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Yet Kalnejais’ sly script resists the sticky bucket-list clichés of so many carpe diem cancer dramas before it: It’s not a checklist of experiences Milla wants to complete, but the intangible, out-of-body sensation of adult desire, even if it comes with equally grown-up heartbreak. As usual with love, it arrives unannounced, literally body-slamming into her on a train platform in the unpromising form of Moses (Toby Wallace, incandescent through the grime), an addled, jittering 23-year-old screw-up who’s also about as sexy as any man with a rat-tail coiffure and a prison-style face tattoo has any right to be. Begging her for money upfront doesn’t exactly augur a romance for the ages, but Milla — a comfortably middle-class good girl with a life of violin lessons and prom deliberations — is immediately susceptible to his wild, wired charisma, even as she realizes he’s fleecing her for cash and drugs. The girl is no fool: She just wants to be a fool for someone.
Her mutually depressed parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and former music prodigy Anna (Essie Davis), are understandably horrified by the boyfriend Milla brings in off the street(s). But what use is it to tell a dying girl what she can’t do? How many of her last days do you want her to spend grounded? Henry and Anna, it turns out, are themselves over-reliant on medication and denial, their marriage tenuously held together by the one shared thing they’re about to lose. “This is really not about you right now,” Henry tells his fretting, tensed-to-break wife one night when Milla disappears to paint the town neon with the boy of their nightmares. “It is,” she snaps. “Babyteeth” is as sympathetic to Milla’s need for space, air and room to err as it is to her panicked parents’ urge to protect her from some of their own worst tendencies.
Working from Kalnejais’ own stage play, the writer and Murphy build up this domestic crisis into a volatile, stakes-shifting battle of wills and wants, in which all parties are a little more like each other than they care to admit. It’s a sparking, short-circuiting family dynamic quite brilliantly performed by the film’s well-matched quartet of thesps. Mendelsohn and Davis, both at their best when seemingly on their last nerve, enter proceedings as tetchy, easily satirized suburban stereotypes, only to etch more specific wells of pain, terror and gaping loneliness into their respective voids. Wallace, for his part, finds a tender human center amid all Moses’ rapidly tick-tocking moods, impulses and slinky-scuzzy body language. So attuned is he to Scanlen’s less mercurial but equally complex work that, at points, he seems like a rogue extension of her own body.
Any secondary characters — a pregnant neighbor drawn to Henry, a music teacher who remembers Anna’s gentler days — have a slightly script-workshopped flatness to them; “Babyteeth” works best as an abrasive four-hander, though Murphy’s limber, sensually electric direction leaves the film with little clear evidence of its theatrical origins. Even the film’s occasionally precious, rather erratically applied chapter headings (“Nausea,” “Insomnia,” “F—k This,” and so on) have a mounting cinematic rhythm to them.
Via Andrew Commis’ glowing, fluidly color-changing cinematography — sometimes saturated in the chlorinated turquoise of backyard swimming pools, elsewhere in the musky orange of skin illuminated by a bedside light — and a diverse soundtrack pulsating with modern soul, electro and, when required, weeping classical strings, Murphy deftly flips switches between the world as it is and the world as Milla wants it to be, toward a wholly naturalistic beachside coda in which all affectations are shed to wrenching effect. Among its many achievements, “Babyteeth” succeeds in being a terminal disease drama with not one glimpse of a doctor or hospital ward: With a protagonist battling to resolve childhood and adulthood, first love and last, in a compressed space of time, Murphy’s remarkable debut keeps its pain close to home.