Arts

Eliza Scanlen delivers a fearless lead performance as a terminally ill teen in Babyteeth

A terminally ill teenager (Eliza Scanlen) experiences the first pangs of love in the Australian coming of age drama comedy Babyteeth. Damon Smith reviews

Eliza Scanlen as Milla Finlay
Damon Smith

BABYTEETH (15, 118 mins) Drama/Comedy/Romance. Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace. Director: Shannon Murphy.

LOVE means letting go in Shannon Murphy's emotionally shattering debut, a stylistically bold and offbeat rites-of-passage drama comedy, which secured the Australian director a berth behind the camera of the third series of Killing Eve.

Death also becomes Babyteeth as screenwriter Rita Kalnejais deftly navigates first love in the shadow of terminal illness a la The Fault In Our Stars without resorting to emotionally manipulative tropes that often bedevil characters confronted by their mortality.

The heat of a summer in suburban Sydney ripples off the screen thanks to Andrew Commis's saturated cinematography, exacerbating tensions between dysfunctional family members, who have forgotten what it means to suck the marrow out of life.

Eliza Scanlen, who faced a similarly grim prognosis as Beth in Greta Gerwig's recent reworking of Little Women, delivers a fearless lead performance as a teenager at peace with her premature demise.

She is luminous as the glue holding together her parents' fractured relationship, brought vividly to life in blasts of rage and despair by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis.

As a stark counterpoint to this mournful middle-class introspection, Toby Wallace conveys surprising tenderness through his homeless drug addict, whose unwelcome arrival, angrily brandishing a meat fork, at one point, precipitates long overdue acceptance.

Sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Milla Finlay (Scanlen) should have the world at her feet in between violin lessons and heart-to-hearts with her psychiatrist father Henry (Mendelsohn) and concert pianist mother Anna (Davis).

Instead, Milla is bravely contending with cancer treatment and the shattering realisation that she may slip from the loving embrace of this world without experiencing the pangs of love.

That changes on a train platform when tattooed 20-something Moses (Wallace) attempts to fleece her for money to feed his habit.

Wise to his motivation, Milla obliges, setting in motion a fiery romance that burns white hot and shatters the polite order of her family home.

"This is the worst possible parenting that I could imagine," rues Anna to her husband as they watch Milla and Moses play-fighting in the back garden.

Despite fierce opposition to their daughter's choice of beau, Moses breaks into the Finlays' home to plunder their prescription medication, Henry and Anna are resigned to his continued presence to ensure their daughter spends her final moments adrift on adolescent bliss.

Babyteeth is a haunting four-hander, which could intoxicate just as easily on a theatre stage with beautifully written verbal exchanges and a meticulous eye for the beautiful imperfections of human relationships.

An eclectic music soundtrack neatly reflects the personalities of the central quartet, swinging between electronic, pop and classical beats.

Murphy accomplishes potentially awkward tonal changes and delivers a flurry of disorienting blows in a beautiful and conventional setting, the beach, that make juddering sobs in the dark an inevitability.

Rating 9/10

Released August 14

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Arts