Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s a review of a new film by an Australian director, Shannon Murphy, who makes her feature directing debut after a number of TV episodes and shorts (she’s most recently knocked off a couple of episodes of Killing Eve). So she has no track record to show off in the racks at Scarecrow, but if you decide to stream Babyteeth, you might be reminded of some of Jane Campion’s notable work.
From its spelled-out chapter headings to its precisely-chosen color scheme, Babyteeth is directed with a specific, confident hand. At the same time, it’s often drowsy in mood and vague in behavior; this is a deceptively dreamy movie. All of those qualities—control and wistfulness alike—are embodied in our heroine, Milla, played by Little Women sister Eliza Scanlen (she was Beth). A teenage oddbird in Sydney, Milla lives in comfort with her parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and onetime musician Anna (Essie Davis, the appalling mother in the recent True History of the Kelly Gang). Milla also lives with illness, which gives urgency to her remaining time on Earth.
Maddeningly (to her parents and probably to us), Milla wants to spend a significant amount of her remaining time with a scruffy loser named Moses (Toby Wallace), an older boy who steals, takes drugs, and mostly sleeps on the street. He is a tall, skinny, acne-studded red alert, and she adores him even though she sees what he really is. The film, written by Rita Kaljenais, follows this crush and also explores other threads, such as Henry’s encounters with a pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay), or Milla’s music lessons with her mother’s old flame (Eugene Gilfedder).
Babyteeth is wacky in the way we expect from a certain kind of Australian ensemble piece, but it also launches itself into unpredictable territory; a night Milla spends in Moses’ world morphs into a visit to a party, which on the one hand is a director’s opportunity to say “Look at what I can do with image and sound” (the answer: quite a lot), but also a wonderful evocation of one of those youthful nights that just take off in their own ecstatic trajectory and become both ordinary and singular. I like that the movie spends almost no time wringing its hands with psychology, and instead embraces Milla’s romantic yearnings while giving us the hard realities of Moses’ considerable limitations. Everybody else has limitations, too, and we see those.
Murphy has a good eye for telling details, like the chapter heading that begins with a lawn strewn with chopped-up watermelons being pecked at by crows (why? No idea, but it looks right) or Anna, socked with her usual cocktail of anti-anxiety pills, groggily but pleasantly skimming the leaves from her swimming pool. And Murphy is clearly good with actors, although she gives herself an advantage by casting a bunch of top-notch ones here. Mendelsohn and Davis create a mysterious and authentic co-dependency, and Wallace gives the seemingly impossible Moses a goofy, brutally honest undertone, or possibly overtone. The film is a showcase for Eliza Scanlen, an original presence. There are probably too many movies about tragic young women with day-glo hair who spend significant time dancing by themselves, but in this case Murphy and Scanlen make the spectacle look authentic and touching.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.