Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2020 1:46 pm 
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ELIZA SCANLON IN BABYTEETH

TRAILER

Cancer requires new rules for parenting

This is a fresh and original Australian feature. It's just a bit hard to know how to take it. Is it serious? Or is it all a lark? And if it's a lark, is not taking a teenager with fatal cancer lightly not shockingly frivolous?

Milla (Eliza Scanlen of Little Women) is the teenager in question, and she's sixteen. Her meet-cute with Moses (Toby Wallace) happens at a train station where she has a nose bleed and collapses. Moses immediately takes charge, with an intimacy and charm (and closeups by a camera that loves him) that belies his battered-looking face because its lines are good. Wallace has the manner of a homeless kid, but an older one - he answers to 23 - and one that's blooming with health and sexiness. He's of an age when drugs and shifty living haven't caught up with him yet. We later learn he's kind of a bourgeois hoodlum. He immediately establishes a voluptuous intimacy with Milla, with a sense that he's got problems too (like drugs, using and dealing). He's got a mother, who breeds fancy dogs and has a younger son, and a nice house. She inexplicably hates Moses and keeps chasing him away (his backstory is never clear), but he keeps going back there. His father he admits he knows little of, and hasn't gotten on well with. Yet there is a gentleness about him and love of life, a sweet smile, and an eagerness to care for Milla though she isn't sure he loves her.

About Milla there seems little to learn, not even about her disease, which is never specified, and there is only one hospital scene, though she gets chemo and spends more than half the film shaven-headed, with multiple wigs - an opportunity for giddy playacting and charming Moses. We learn more about her parents. Her mother Anna (Essie Davis) is highly-strung and chronically self-centered and a gifted pianist, who has a connection with the quirky, offhandedly passionate man with a heavy accent who teaches Milla violin (Eugene Gilfedder), also to a little Asian boy he insists is in love with Milla. Her father Henry (the great Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, and works out of a wing of their bright, airy modern house. Anna and Henry have a mock appointment, a regular thing, the inter-title tells us, where (we find out, to our embarrassment) he very casually screws her. He is listening, later, to a patient who is having a major breakthrough (she says) which he abruptly interrupts to go and screw in a lightbulb for the very pregnant neighbor he encounters regularly, a kind of running joke. He is in running midlife crisis but he's pretty sexy too.

The whole movie seems a running joke signaled by the oddball running titles of segments that may be deemed necessary to order the episodic structure, or cutesy, or borderline twee.

Again, the question: is it a good idea to run a funny undercurrent to a film about cancer? Well yes, maybe it is. We need humor to help us get through the heartache. And this film is at least half about youth, that's beautiful even in disaster and resilient enough to make light of the heaviest things, to get through them.

Henry and Anna are a running melodrama. Moses is a disaster that can laugh itself off and turn it into sweetness. Milla is a tragedy that can be fragile and angry but also steely.

Milla invites Moses to her school's formal dance, and prepares for it with a dress her mother brings her that matches her current wild blue wig, but in the event it doesn't matter. All that matters are the moments. Anna has strong objections to bringing Moses into the house, but she and Henry can deny her daughter nothing because she may have no time. "This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine," she declares to Henry, wisely, as they see Moses climbing on top of Milla out on the lawn. Her first love is possibly her only love and he's not the nice boy with a promising future but he's what they'e got even if he's fleecing his underage girlfriend for money and drugs.

Babyteeth earns the unfortunate classification "dramedy," but it avoids sentimentality despite having a trajectory that links it with the weepie. Its quirks are at least its own. This is Shannon Murphy's third feature, adapted from her own play by Rita Kalnejais. She is talented and original and is slated to direct the third season of the much-discussed BBC series "Killing Eve."

Babyteeth, 117 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019, showing at a dozen other international festivals, including New Directors/New Films, where it was screened for this review (except the press screenings were stopped midway and the series was cancelled, due to the coronavirus pandemic). An IFC Films release in the US with a planned release date of June 19 - in theaters (originally) and available on demand. (It can now be rented on Amazon Prime - 6/29/2020.)

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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