Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Babyteeth, on VOD June 19.
Sixteen-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is dying, just as she’s begun to really live. It’s a tragedy we’ve seen on film (often based on similarly weepy books) before: a young couple falls in love, only to discover that one of them (or both of them) exists on borrowed time. There’s a whole genre of terminally ill teen romance films, from The Fault in Our Stars, to A Walk to Remember, and Five Feet Apart — among many, many others.
But Australian director Shannon Murphy’s (who also helms season 3 of Killing Eve) take feels fresh and unexpected. Babyteeth isn’t a melodrama, or even really a romance; it’s a feral cry for independence, a coming-of-age story of a young woman with one foot in childhood, the other in adulthood, but whose grave looms like a dark cloud over the transition. It’s not a YA film, but as Murphy points out, that doesn’t stop it from speaking to teenagers.
“I feel teenage girls deserve stronger representation,” Shannon told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the movie’s June 19 VOD release. “For me, it was important that [Babyteeth] be tonally different. This isn’t a story made for teenagers. However, I imagine that they’re going to really like it, because it is saying I see you, I know how incredibly intelligent and emotionally aware you are of things. This is a story where I hope you feel like we honor that rather than over-sentimentalize things, or draw you in in a slightly more manipulative way.”
“A lot of films [about teen illness] are wrought with grief and sadness, and Oh the time we have remaining,” Scanlen added. “Babyteeth directly refutes that, and it’s a breath of fresh air. I think it’s much more interesting to show Milla’s resilience rather than seeing her succumb to this illness. You see her thrive more than you see her in pain or physically vulnerable.”
The movie starts with a bang. Literally — we’ve barely gotten to know anything about Milla before she runs head-on into Moses (Toby Wallace) on a train platform. Unlike her illness, which sort of creeps up on us through symbols and hints, her future careens into her at full speed. Her suburban parents, psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendolsohn) and former pianist Anna (Essie Davis) don’t quite know how to react when their daughter brings home the 24-year-old bum, whose interest in Milla stems as much from her easy access to drugs as her strangely ethereal demeanor. But how do you tell a daughter who has months to live that she can’t fully experience a taste of adulthood — its lows as well as its highs — in that time?
“I wanted to tell a story about how you can listen to younger people when they’re in this situation, and ask them what they want and how they want to live their lives in the greatest existential crisis they’re going to have,” Murphy said.
Babyteeth doesn’t coddle its protagonist, but rather meets her on her fraught emotional journey. It doesn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable details — like the potentially problematic age gap between Milla and Moses, or the fact that we’re never quite sure if the latter’s heart is in the right place. Instead, Shannon leans in, daring viewers to deny this young woman the chance to grow up and live, albeit in a compressed, accelerated way. There’s no preachy morality, no tiresome lessons to be learned. Illness isn’t presented as a deep catalyst for change and growth, but rather as an accelerant thrown onto an already raging fire, threatening to obliterate everything in its past as it consumes all the air it has left.
The success of that approach hinges on Scanlen’s captivating performance, which vacillates between childlike wonderment — symbolized by her single stubborn remaining baby tooth, the key to the film’s title — but also a cold maturity beyond her years. Her parents may be wracked with indecision and fear, but she’s confident in what she wants the remainder of her life to look like, even if it looks self-destructive on the outside.
“Milla feels very chaotic and frenzied, and you meet her at a time in her life when she's in flux,” Scanlen said. “She’s coming to terms with news that will really rupture her life forever. There’s a realness and a nowness to Milla that I was drawn to, and she’s very earnest and sincere with everything she does. She really embraces her weirdness.”
Scanlen infuses Milla’s first romance with the intensity of your average teenager, with the added urgency of a young woman who has nothing left to lose. Every experience is a first, but also a last, a kind of frenetic curiosity that comes to a head during a beautiful scene that feels almost otherworldly. With a short blonde bob wig covering her shaved head, eyes rimmed with liner stolen from the drugstore, Milla follows Moses to a house party. As the colorful lights swirl, a figure draped in silver circles Milla like a ghost — in that moment she’s both intensely in her body, but also spiritually free.
But nothing differentiates Babyteeth from its YA peers as starkly as the moment in which Milla finally loses her virginity to Moses. It’s one of the final scenes in the film, one that would traditionally be devoted to hammering home the beauty of romance, and the narrative arc that both lovers have traveled in order to arrive at this, for lack of a better word, climax of emotional growth. Babyteeth takes that trope and blows it up.
Milla’s first time isn’t a tender, candle-filled, rose petal heart affair. Rather, Milla and Moses are lying in bed when she asks him to end her life by suffocating her with a pillow. He tries, and for nearly 90 seconds, Milla struggles for her breath, writhing underneath him in a macabre echo of sex. When, eventually, Moses gives up and lifts the pillow, the two crash into each other with renewed purpose, giving into the crackling sexual chemistry that’s been kept on the back burner this whole time. It’s a scene that’s messy and raw, brutal in its unvarnished depiction of desire and death. For Milla, those things are one and the same.