Star Eliza Scanlen and director Shannon Murphy on why Babyteeth is not your typical teen cancer drama.

Actress Eliza Scanlen and director Shannon Murphy tell Laura Harding why new film Babyteeth is not your typical teen cancer drama

Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace in Babyteeth
Laura Harding

Teen cancer dramas have become familiar fare in recent years. The success of the 2014 adaptation of John Green's book The Fault In Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, spawned a string of weepy successors. There are even online rankings of "terminal romance movies".

But the new Australian film Babyteeth, starring Sharp Objects actress Eliza Scanlen and helmed by theatre director Shannon Murphy, stands apart from the sentimental sob stories that have come before.

"It is really bizarre that it's become it's own genre," Scanlen says thoughtfully over the phone.

"But I think that Shannon reflected a lot on this kind of genre before making the film and how she can directly reject it.

"And I think because of her theatrical training she was able to do that in a really eloquent way. And I think Rita (Kalnejais, who wrote the script based on her own play) has a very irreverent unsentimental sense of humour.

"One would think it might not be that, a teen cancer movie, but that is what makes it so sincere to me.

"And there is a realness to my character that I hadn't really seen in other movies about the same topic and it's not weepie in any way."

Scanlen plays Milla, a 15-year-old with terminal cancer, who falls for Moses (The Society star Toby Wallace), a small-time drug dealer who knocks her over at a railway station and then cradles her in his arms when she gets a nosebleed.

When he tells her he has been kicked out of his house, she invites him back to hers, to the horror of her well-meaning but protective parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis), who are struggling to come to terms with their only child's diagnosis while juggling their own messy relationship.

But it's not a straight forward, sentimental romance between a doomed cancer patient and a criminal with a heart of gold.

The film darts around their relationship as it is divided into chapters marked with enigmatic title cards.

On top of that, Moses is eight years older, feckless and unreliable, at one point leaving her alone on a roof all night.

He steals drugs from Milla's parents, who suspect he is using her for access to pills but put up with his presence to keep their daughter happy.

Babyteeth director Shannon Murphy

"I'm not into over-sentimentalising things because I don't think that is how many of us respond in crisis situations," Murphy says.

"It was so important to keep it as naturalistic and alive and real as possible and also to really honour how intelligent teenagers are and how much they can hold their own space and give them the authority that they have in real life and deserve."

Asked if she wanted to distance herself from other films that could possibly be compared to it, she replied: "I think distance myself is a really good way to put it.

"I'm definitely not into teen cancer dramas as a genre that I genuinely like to devour myself, but I think that is mainly because like anything the tricky thing about film is any time you describe it, it just falls into a cliche of a genre of a film that you've seen before.

"And this is just the most impossible film to describe well.

"That is what drew everyone to make this film, because it is unlike anything you've seen and yet it's got so many elements that you've seen before.

"In a million years if you told me I was going to direct a teen cancer coming-of-age film I would just absolutely tell you I'm not going to bother reading it.

"But Rita always said it's a story about a girl who has cancer as much as it is about a girl who plays the violin, those are not the elements that we focused on, because someone is not just defined by their illness.

"There is so much more to them than that and young people who do have cancer, they don't want to be defined by that, so it was important to honour that person's experience."

But that does not mean it was not an arduous and emotional experience for 21-year-old actress Scanlen, who was most recently seen as another fatally ill teenager, the sickly Beth, in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.

"It was a very emotional experience, the whole making of the film," she admits.

"Whilst we had a lot of fun and there was a lot of laughter on set, there were days on set where none of us could keep it together, and those who were sitting behind the monitor trying to be quiet really struggled to do so because some scenes were just so painful to watch and to act."

Essie Davis, Toby Wallace, Eliza Scanlen and Ben Mendelsohn in Babyteeth

Shaving her head was also a highly charged experience, bringing with it anxiety about what her bare head might look like and awkward moments with strangers who thought she was a real cancer patient.

"I was terrified at first," she admits.

"I'm a twin and it was kind of a running joke in my family that I had a big dent in my head from my sister kicking me in the womb, so I had no idea whether that had stayed as I grew older.

"It was a relief when we shaved it off and my head was perfectly round, so there was nothing to worry about.

"But I realised after shaving it how much I hid behind my hair and it instilled in me a confidence that I didn't have before and it sounds cheesy but I think it really did transform me.

"Looking back, the film itself was a very important turning point in my life in not only in what I want my career as an actor to be but also just who I am as a person and the sort of people I want to surround myself with.

"I think that Milla encouraged me to be less generic and shaving your hair off is a very good way of doing that to begin with.

"After shaving my head, being out in public felt different at first.

"It requires a lot of bravery to begin with to step out without any hair and I felt especially uncomfortable knowing that people were going to see me in a certain way and that I was going to receive a lot of undeserved sympathy for an illness that I didn't have.

"People did assume that I was ill and that was at times quite uncomfortable so it gave me a lot of perspective.

"I just felt like every experience was teaching me something greater.

"I think Milla takes risks and through the making of the film I learned how to take risks as Eliza as well."

:: Babyteeth is out now

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