Don't write Babyteeth off as another sick teen movie
First-time director Shannon Murphy revitalizes a stale genre
Boy meets Girl. Girl has cancer. Like all movie cancers, it's terminal. Girl is busy working her way through a bucket list, which includes items like "lose virginity," "shoplift," and "go to Amsterdam." Girl tries to push Boy away by telling him: "if you leave now ... everything we had will be perfect forever." Boy stays anyway. They go to prom! Girl finally dies, but looks very beautiful while she's at it. Fall, fall, frail leaf in shadow! Boy gazes off into the sunset and thinks about how their love is like a wind as "Cry" by Mandy Moore plays in the background.
How many times have you seen this movie, or some variation of it? Odds are, a lot. Hollywood loves a good terminal romance movie, and especially one in which the person dying is a teenage girl (although sometimes it's a teenage boy who dies, just to shake things up). The genre is basically a foolproof formula for success, coming preloaded with "despair, alienation, suffering, seize-the-day recklessness, [and] inbuilt tragedy." You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll roll your eyes at the same recycled clichés (seriously, how does everyone seem to have the foresight to write a letter to be read in somber voice-over after they've died?).
That's what makes Babyteeth — an Australian family drama about 16-year-old cancer patient, Milla Finlay, falling in love with a 23-year-old drug addict, out on VOD Friday — so refreshing: it is the rare sickness story that doesn't succumb to the genre's worst and most schmaltzy tendencies. Using an outstanding cast, inspired direction, and unexpected soundtrack, it revitalizes an otherwise stale genre.
And stale it is! The terminal illness romance more or less began with Love Story in 1970, which, as one of the highest-grossing films of all time, induced literally dozens of imitators over the years. To quote the extremely prescient and correct Vincent Canby of The New York Times, "The only really depressing thing about Love Story is the thought of all the terrible imitations that will inevitably follow it." The ensuing deluge has included Now Is Good (leukemia), Restless (cancer; three months to live), A Walk to Remember (leukemia), The Fault in Our Stars (assorted cancers; thinks it's more subversive than it is), Then Came You (unidentified cancer), and Five Feet Apart (cystic fibrosis). The manipulative and unrealistic fetishization of serious illness in such films, however, can be traced back even further, to the Victorian obsession with tuberculosis, when slowly dying of consumption was seen as the romantic ideal.
In the modern era, anyway, terminal illness narratives nearly always revolve around a Manic Pixie Cancer Patient — that is, a quirky girl who faces her impending doom with gallows humor and a selfless concern for what her parents are going to do after she's gone, who somehow has the perfect head for a cute pixie cut, and who functions in the plot to provoke a paradigm shift in her male lover, when he ultimately survives her.
The ill girl is such a staple of the genre that the trope might have spoiled Babyteeth, if not for the casting of Eliza Scanlen as the lead character, 16-year-old Milla. Unlike her predecessors, Scanlen is rarely given dialogue in Rita Kalnejais' script that makes explicit her fears, hopes, dreams, or musings about her mortality. Instead, first-time director Shannon Murphy trusts her young star to navigate Milla's transitional age with bursts of childish immaturity and the first rebellious forays of adulthood. Scanlen — who previously played another sick girl, Beth March, in 2019's Little Women — does this with natural instinct that even much more experienced actors can be challenged to find. In one of the film's best scenes, a schoolmate pesters Milla in the bathroom to let her try on her wig. Milla initially resists, but eventually gives in. Though Scanlen has nearly no lines during the scene, the magnitude of emotion — hurt, shame, rage — that crosses her face says more than any contrived soliloquies about dying ever could.
It helps, also, that Scanlen is given a terrific sounding board. Her boyfriend, the much-older drug addict Moses, is played by Toby Wallace, who comes across as something of a more subtle James Franco or Shia LaBeouf; he takes enough of a backseat to Milla that the script never risks putting his own arc above her own, something that might leave some feeling baffled by perceived underdevelopment when it is rather a deliberate breaking with the genre trope. Milla's parents, wealthy Sydney suburbanites, are played compassionately by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis.
Murphy (whose previous work includes this especially weighty season of Killing Eve) gives her actors the room to breathe on screen, never overburdening them with hokey metaphor or other hackneyed expectations of the genre. Most importantly of all, she understands that we watch a movie for its people, not the disease; for most of the movie, it's unclear even how sick Milla is, and the audience is left to do their own interpreting of small moments and passing lines. The film's strength lies in its quieter, odder little scenes, punctuated with titles like "Nausea" and "Sleeptalking." Two such standouts: When Milla is left to herself at a dance, encountering, amid the spangled lights, an older, androgynous stranger who might be a reflection of future or inner self; and when Milla is described by the titles as communing with the dead as she tilts her head in and out of shadow.
The soundtrack of the terminal illness movie might be its most manipulative trick of all. Babyteeth doesn't entirely overcome this; the biggest tear-jerker moment is set to what I would describe as "sad violin music," which doesn't get a free pass just because Milla is a violin player herself. But the soundtrack is unexpected and deliberate, serving to punctuate Milla's life with euphoric swells: Sudan Archives' "Come Meh Way," tUnE-yArDs' "Bizness," and Vashti Bunyan's "Just Another Diamond Day" are all given lengthy play time. If anything, it risks being a little too cute, but Murphy understands exactly the right moment to pull back.
Babyteeth isn't faultless, and some clichés can prove just too hard to shake. Milla is at risk of what Roger Ebert once cheekily coined as "Ali MacGraw's Disease," after the way Love Story's ill girl seems to suffer from growing more beautiful as she grows sicker. Though Milla does express realistic symptoms of illness, including the fatigue that seems to elude so many other ill girls in the genre, she seems at times too chic to believably be an anybody. The emphasis on temporality — the bloom of Milla's mother's dahlias, "horse mushroom season," the time in our life with our baby teeth, before our adult ones painfully displace them — is also a bit obvious, although it's artfully handled. Additionally, there will certainly be audiences who are put off by the age gap between Milla and Moses, a complaint that isn't unwarranted and gets further discussion in Vanity Fair's review.
In a disservice to Babyteeth, though, some of the movie's marketing seems strained to tie it to the terminal illness trend. And with the success of the genre, who can blame them? "What might have been a disaster for the Finlay family instead leads to letting go and finding grace in the glorious chaos of life," IFC Films cloyingly writes in the copy. But that's somewhat false advertising — if you're looking for a Boy Meet Girl, Girl Has Cancer movie, keep looking. Babyteeth deserves to be recognized as so much more.