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In ‘Babyteeth,’ she’s 16 and has cancer, he’s 23 with a drug habit, and she thinks now it’s time to meet her parents?

Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace in "Babyteeth."IFC Films via AP

On paper, “Babyteeth” sounds like every parent’s nightmare, as well as every moviegoer’s: a self-consciously “quirky” romance between a 16-year-old schoolgirl with cancer and the 23-year-old drug addict she insists on bringing home to meet Mom and Dad. So it’s to the credit of Australian filmmaker Shannon Murphy and her remarkable quartet of actors that the movie, newly available as an on-demand rental, sails between the Scylla of pretentiousness and the Charybdis of the cutes. There’s a lot of heavy lifting involved, but the movie works.

Also, if you’ve written off Eliza Scanlen as the passive, pliant Beth of the recent “Little Women,” buckle in for her performance as Milla, who’s waiting in her school uniform at a subway stop in Sydney when she meets Moses (Toby Wallace), who’s more or less homeless, is covered in tattoos, and screams Bad News. So of course she lets him give her a haircut with his mother’s dog-grooming shears.

Scanlen has a deadpan blue-eyed stare that conveys a simmering fury at a world that won’t let her stay in remission and at parents who have curled up into separate defensive crouches. Father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist who can talk about everyone’s emotions except his own. Mother Anna (Essie Davis) is a former concert pianist who can’t bring herself to touch the keyboard until her daughter is cured.


Ben Mendelsohn in "Babyteeth." IFC Films via AP

Under Murphy’s direction, the tone is darkly comic — not what you’d expect given that plot synopsis but to which the actors respond with deftness and creativity, like downhill skiers facing a challenging slalom. Mendelsohn is one of the character-acting treasures of Australian and US independent cinema, and since he often plays villains it’s a treat to see him invest his charisma in a relatively “normal” if deeply divided man. Davis has been tearing up screens Down Under since the 1990s, most recently as the bedeviled mother in “The Babadook” (2014) and Ned Kelly’s hellacious Mum in “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2019). Her Anna is heartbreakingly vulnerable and, in a sense, the movie’s secret central character.


Essie Davis in "Babyteeth."IFC Films via AP

As for Scanlen and Wallace as the young lovers, both they and their director are too smart to over-romanticize the pairing. Moses has a guileless sweet side but it’s unclear for the longest time — to him as to everyone else — whether he’s hanging around Milla solely for her father’s access to pharmaceuticals. The teeterboard of the emotional dynamic in “Babyteeth” keeps tipping back and forth among the four main characters, especially once Henry and Anna allow Moses to move in with them, knowing that if they don’t their daughter will run away. “Worst parenting decision ever,” sighs Anna, and yet the movie finds a novel, touching, and funny way forward for this family.

Murphy has worked in TV (“Killing Eve”) but this is her first feature — the script is by Rita Kalnejais, based on her stage play — and she walks a tricky tightrope with style. There are sequences in “Babyteeth” that can leave you breathless, including one at a neon-drenched party where Milla loses herself in an ecstasy of music. (The soundtrack choices throughout are as off-kilter and inspired as the filmmaking: Tune-Yards, Sudan Archives, a lovely karaoke version of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s cult chestnut “Baby.”)


Elsewhere, you feel Murphy straining for effect. There’s a pregnant neighbor named Toby (Emily Barclay) who seems to be here solely for additional quirk, and the film’s visual style can spin easily from the heady to the headachy. Every scene is introduced with a title, which gets cloying. And while “Babyteeth” does its best to keep mawkishness at bay, a final plot turn feels both preordained and pat in its calculated sadness. It’s a movie that wants to be in the same uncategorizable wheelhouse as “Harold and Maude,” or one of Lynne Ramsay’s softer fables. That it gets most of the way there is a tribute to the talents of its cast and the promise of its maker.



Directed by Shannon Murphy. Written by Rita Kalnejais. Starring Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn. Available on demand through all major platforms. 118 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, extreme Australian quirk).