‘Babyteeth’ explores the choices of an uncertain future

“Babyteeth” (2019). Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Emily Barclay, Andrea Demetriades, Eugene Gilfedder. Director: Shannon Murphy. Screenplay: Rita Kalnejais. Play: Rita Kalnejais, Babyteeth. Web site. Trailer.

If you were up against your own mortality, how would you spend your time? That question might be a little easier to answer for someone who’s somewhat on in years and who has the benefit of a wealth of life experience to draw upon. But, for someone lacking such insight, that decision might be a little more difficult to make; you know you want to get something in under your belt with the time that remains, but the choices may not be readily apparent, given that you’ve never been through them before and that you don’t know how long you have. Some of those choices might even appear questionable or objectionable to onlookers and those who care about you, options that could be roundly discouraged. Nevertheless, you move ahead anyway, as best you can and as best as you see fit, a journey that might prove to be a joyful ride, a rocky road or perhaps both, the kind of challenge faced by an adolescent living under such circumstances in the enigmatic new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth.”

Australian teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) leads a somewhat challenged life. Many of her peers at a private school in suburban Sydney see her as offbeat and kinda geeky, a promising violin virtuoso who’s not exactly one of the hippest kids in her class. But there’s more to it than that; in a number of ways, she’s not quite as grown up as many of her classmates. She even possesses one of her baby teeth, a rather unusual condition for someone her age. However, if all that weren’t enough, Milla is undergoing treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, one that often leaves her drained, not to mention embarrassed by the side effects that accompany chemotherapy, such as hair loss.

Because cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) faces an uncertain future, she seeks to take in as much of life as possible, even pursuits of a questionable nature, during what time she has in the new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Nevertheless, Milla strives to cope, wrestling with all of the awkwardness that comes with adolescence, her own particular challenges aside. And, as quickly becomes apparent, given her uncertain future and despite her social clumsiness, she’s not afraid of trying out new things as a means of finding her own way, no matter how successful she is at dealing with them. That’s perhaps best exemplified by the spontaneous relationship she strikes up with Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old small-time drug dealer and occasional user who takes a shine to 16-year-old Milla. In many ways, though, they seem a mismatched couple; given their age difference, Moses has more worldly experience than Milla, which periodically causes him to lose patience with her, even going so far as to ditch her when things become tiresome or he sees it as convenient. Such incidents can lead to expected heartache, as well as serious and potentially dangerous complications. But, despite this sometimes-shoddy treatment, Milla basks in whatever attention he provides, which makes her feel better, especially when the debilitating effects of her illness overwhelm her.

Needless to say, this relationship doesn’t sit well with Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis), a former music prodigy-turned-stay-at-home mom. But, then, they should be careful about pointing fingers given their own questionable behavior. Anna is often strung out on all manner of prescription medicines (prescribed by her husband no less), while Henry is having a less-than-platonic relationship with his young, new, pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay). Oh, and Henry and Anna have more than their share of emotional clashes, making any of their daughter’s conflicts with Moses look pale by comparison. However, given their awareness of Milla’s condition and a vague appreciation of the bad examples they set, mom and dad avoid hypocrisy by cutting her a great deal of slack and allowing her to have her fun, no matter how much they detest the guy she’s seeing.

As their on-again/off-again romance unfolds, Milla and Moses somehow manage to undergo a fair amount of personal growth, both as individuals and as a couple. Milla’s first love experience may not be perfect, and Moses may be far from the ideal mate, but they share an undeniable, if inexplicable bond. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, given their respective circumstances, neither of them probably expects to be around for long, so they grab at what life has to offer while they have the chance. It’s not as if they’re checking off items on a bucket list, but they seem eager to freely engage in whatever life experience strikes their fancy at the moment; after all, they may not have many opportunities to pursue such adventures. And, as they partake in these exploits, they aim to get the most out of them, no matter how unusual or unacceptable they might seem to others, particularly Henry and Anna.

First love takes an unexpected form for cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen, left) when she falls for Moses (Toby Wallace, right), a small-time drug dealer and occasional user seven years her senior, in director Shannon Murphy’s impressive debut feature, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

In many regards, this scenario might sound heartbreaking, and, admittedly, there is a discernable undercurrent of sadness that runs through the story. But there are also joys to be had, such as the thrills of first love, exhilarating escapades and loads of laughs, many of a decidedly quirky nature. Their ups, downs and adventures remind us all of the rich panorama of experience life has to offer and the ultimately all-too-finite windows in which we have to enjoy it, opportunities that are considerably shorter for some of us than for others. For someone seeking to literally and figuratively shed her remaining baby teeth, such a quest may prove to be more urgent than many of us realize or can appreciate. Carpe diem, indeed.

To an outside observer, many would probably look upon Milla’s circumstances and say that she got a raw deal. They might add that she’s fortunate to come from a contented middle class background, one that has provided her a comfortable home, seemingly adequate health care, and loving and supportive (if challenged) parents. But, then, they also might wonder why she’s potentially risking all the blessings she has by pursuing a seemingly hopeless relationship with a walking train wreck. Indeed, is it wise to jeopardize what she has going for her by hanging out with someone who’s steps away from rehab or a jail cell?

Considering how long Milla’s seemingly been a nerd and given the ticking clock she might be up against, is it any surprise that she wants to get in some thrills while she has the chance? In his own way, Moses makes that possible, and, if that’s what she wants, should anyone realistically deprive her of that? For what it’s worth, there may be valuable life lessons for her in such an involvement, questionable though it may be. So is it fair to deny her that just because it’s related to circumstances that others might find objectionable?

Distressed parents Henry and Anna Finlay (from left, Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) worry about their teenage daughter’s health and questionable choice in boyfriends in the moving new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

Admittedly, this is a thorny question, but, for better or worse, this is what Milla believes she needs at this time in her life. And, for her part, she has successfully managed to draw these circumstances to her through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we employ these metaphysical tools in manifesting the reality we experience. Even if Milla has never heard of this practice, it’s nevertheless apparent that she’s quite adept at working with its principles.

This is not to suggest that Milla wants to end up in the gutter, nor is that something to be condoned. After all, she still seems to want many of the things teenagers typically desire – shedding the naïveté of youth, finding ways to fit in (especially with the cool kids), attending her school formal and experiencing love (in all its forms) for the first time. She just seems to be following her own path on her way to discovering these things for herself. How can any of us derail her efforts at that?

Milla goes through many, many changes while on this odyssey. That’s to be expected in a “normal” adolescence, let alone one characterized by the singular issues she faces. But, then, such is the case during an age of personal discovery. It’s also in line with one of conscious creation’s core concepts – that everything is in a constant state of becoming. Milla’s just being true to this stage of life and to this metaphysical principle. So, given what she’s going through, the best that anyone can do for her is to leave her be.

In making her way through these myriad changes, Milla comes up against a host of fears and limitations, all of which she handles in her own way, admittedly with varying degrees of success. Given what she’s up against, this can’t be easy at times. Considering her health challenges, the quiet disapproval of her parents and the typical angst teens generally face, it’s a lot to tackle and overcome. What’s most important, though, is that she makes the effort to do so, a key capability for becoming an effective conscious creation practitioner – and in manifesting a satisfying and fulfilling existence, something at which many of us often come up short.

Music lessons help provide a sense of direction and purpose for cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) in “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

Under these conditions, Milla’s efforts are to be applauded, not criticized. In fact, this scenario in many respects calls to mind the Biblical passage about he who is without sin casting the first stone. Henry and Anna’s disapproval of Milla’s behavior comes as somewhat ironic in light of their own questionable antics. Maybe those who are supposed to be providing guidance to the impressionable can indeed learn something from those whom they’re supposed to be guiding. This can lead to a variety of valuable new revelations for the mentors in such areas as tolerance and compassion. Such an insight becomes abundantly apparent, for example, during one scene in which Milla pleads with Henry to graciously set aside his prejudices and extend these qualities to Moses, something she’s more than willing to do in light of the fact that she can empathize with his situation in a way that her dad perhaps can’t. That sounds pretty grown up for someone who’s still on the verge of adulthood – and who has the wisdom to share her understanding with those who have already arrived there (and theoretically should know better).

Indeed, who says youth doesn’t know anything? When someone is faced with the prospect of having to fit a lifetime of experience into a potentially shorter time frame than most of us typically do, it can prompt one to grow up a lot faster than usual. Milla’s choices might not be the same as those we’d make, but she introduces us to possibilities that we would not ordinarily consider. It’s an example we could all learn from.

“Babyteeth” is far from the typical teen health crisis picture, mainly because it doesn’t dwell on the protagonist’s illness. Instead of presenting a story about an adolescent wrestling with disease, the film tells the tale of a teenager struggling to grow up who just happens to be sick. By presenting Milla’s story from this perspective, director Shannon Murphy defies expectations as she attempts to depict a challenge common to many of us that just happens to have an additional component appended to it, an approach that strives to portray the struggle to carry on and that ultimately serves to heighten the film’s emotional impact. To be sure, Milla’s illness is always lurking in the background, but the picture is more about life (and what we do with it) than about how much time we spend undergoing medical procedures that may or may not prove successful.

With a tautly written script, a superb ensemble cast (including Mendelsohn and Davis in some of their best performances) and a more than ample supply of supremely quirky humor, this excellent debut feature from filmmaker Murphy ushers the audience through a minefield of emotions (especially in the film’s concluding sequence), leaving viewers moved – and drained – by picture’s end. Admittedly, it may seem like the picture meanders at times (and, in fact, it occasionally does), but it’s a film that leaves viewers wondering what’s going to happen and evoking emotions in line with that, yielding reactions that are legitimately earned and not manipulated. Think of this as a slightly off-the-wall, bittersweet and decidedly more dysfunctional version of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), with elements of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015) thrown in, and you have the idea. This is indeed an impressive offering from a promising new talent. Don’t miss it.

“Babyteeth” has primarily been playing at film festivals, and it will be screening at a few more. However, a general release appears to be in the offing sometime in the near future. Look for it at theaters and institutions that specialize in arthouse and independent cinema.

Many of us would no doubt like to live forever, even though most of us fully know that’s impossible. But, that aside, we nevertheless would at least like to have a long and fulfilling life, one that provides us a richness of experience and personal satisfaction. When it appears we might not get it, though, we must decide what to do with what’s available, no matter what the parameters of that opportunity might be. Under such circumstances, we could second-guess ourselves until the time runs out, which certainly doesn’t seem like a viable option. Or we could follow our hearts and tap into the beliefs we hold, having faith that they will provide us with what will serve us best. That’s often the case, and we should trust in that notion to obtain the fulfillment we seek – regardless of how much time we have left.

Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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