Understanding direction, in my view, begins with asking “Why not this?” Instead of shooting a character in silhouette, why not film them from up on high, or while moving the camera from right to left? Why blue instead of red? Voiceover instead of regular dialogue? Once I look at the micro — the small choices and their effects on the scene — I find it easier to see the macro and get how the director’s approach influences the whole movie.
For example, here’s one shot I learned to love in the new coming-of-age drama “Babyteeth”: a handheld wide shot where mother Anna (Essie Davis) and boyfriend Miles (Toby Wallace) hold each other in an emotional embrace. The camera’s shaking, almost too much. At first, I was distracted, so I asked myself, “Why would director Shannon Murphy (making her feature debut) use this take instead of one that’s more still?”
Then I thought back to Martin Scorsese’s episode of “Dinner For Five,” when Jon Favreau pointed out a similar scene in “Casino”: Robert De Niro talking to a crying Sharon Stone when suddenly, the camera’s bumped. Given the shot’s a close-up, it’s that much more noticeable. Favreau asked Scorsese why he kept that take, and the answer was simple: The performances come first.
In “Babyteeth,” the performances come first. And like in that shot, like the movie as a whole, they are raw, complicated and painfully, gorgeously human.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is a 16-year-old who stumbles across 23-year-old Moses while waiting on the train to school. Moses has the charm of a lovable stoner, with the fashion sense to boot (consisting of a rat tail and short shorts that sit dangerously close to the goods). They talk; they flirt; they’re dating.
But “Babyteeth,” written by Rita Kalnejais, who adapted this from her own 2012 play, isn’t only a girl-meets-boy story. As we later learn, it’s not just a girl-struggles-with-chronic-illness story either. Instead, the film builds a portrait of a family (and boyfriend) struggling with the difficulties inherent to individual growth.
I appreciate Kalnejais’s lean screenplay, which employs a series of vignettes, some 45 seconds long, others five-plus minutes long, to tell the story. There is no wasted minute, no unnecessary exposition. The movie trusts its audience to fill in the gaps between time jumps, to quickly absorb pieces of information. I don’t need clues to Milla’s illness from frame one. Lesser movies would plant that seed prematurely, to where it becomes easy to see her as the sick girl, not Milla. By keeping that detail from me in her introduction, the context by which I perceive her shifts to a more universal approach, one easier to empathize with.
If there’s something that doesn’t quite work about the movie, it’s simply that we’ve seen elements of this plot before. The parents don’t like the boyfriend. The girlfriend and boyfriend squabble. The parents have their own hangups. The girl wants to go to the formal. At one point, there’s a party. Much like a Jim Jarmusch movie, there’s a lackadaisical flow to the film, and frankly, if you’re not with these characters, I don’t think you’ll find your entertainment from what happens to them.
The movie starts with a scene of a bloody baby tooth falling into a cup of water. Losing a baby tooth is a welcome sign of development, but the process can be messy, even painful. It’s a fitting metaphor. One would think that metaphor only extends to the young couple, but for Anna, whose anxiety leads her to chemical dependency, and father Henry (a beautifully mustachioed Ben Mendelsohn), who’s not only Anna’s unhappy husband, but also her psychiatrist and drug dealer, the metaphor also rings true. They’ve got quite a bit to hash out.
Davis, who terrified me while also breaking my heart as an anxious single mother in “The Babadook” brings that wild energy here, launching into unpredictable mood swings at the slightest comment. But the softer moments work well here; one can tell she’s lived a tumultuous life through an exhausted sigh. It’s a little too easy to compare Anna’s relationship to Milla with that of Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird” — both mothers and daughters are too similar to the other for their own liking and find themselves at odds, the mothers doing so out of protection, the daughters trying to carve their own identity out of said mothers’ examples. “Babyteeth” never really has that meeting of the minds like in “Lady Bird,” where the two see themselves as essentially the same person. There’s a difficult, simmering side to Anna and Milla’s relationship I’m not totally sure will sit well with people on the first viewing, but in my eyes, it feels more messy, more honest.
Mendelsohn’s Henry is caught in the middle, not so much the peacekeeper as he is damage control. The comparison between Henry and Moses as a before-and-after picture is more apt here; both men internalize their struggles and, with a wandering mind, dream of the “what-ifs,” all the possibilities they can explore outside their current situations.
God, I love Toby Wallace’s performance. What a burst of energy; what a captivating, complicated force of nature. There’s so much to love in his vivacious walk, his goofy pit bull grin and terribly awesome dance moves. It’s so easy to write this character as the eternal fuck-up, but through Kalnejais’s details and Murphy’s patience, he transcends stereotypes. Moses is no stranger to familial hang-ups; he approaches arguments between Milla and Anna with the caution of someone who’s launched one too many tirades against his own parents.
There’s definitely a discomfort to the age gap between Milla and him — something that, even as he proves he cares for Milla deeply, bugs the pit of my stomach. I think it’s meant to. This is a movie about people who feel stuck in childish ways, who feel they can’t move on to a different stage of growth. The age gap becomes yet another example of the messed-up bumps in a transitory part of life.
The phrase “high school never ends” comes to mind, and “Babyteeth” plays into the idea of cycles of personal growth. It’s scary to think the issues plaguing us as teens will plague us long after the bullies and puppy loves have gone, but I think the movie’s sense of humor and patience with difficult characters gives me hope that life isn’t as short as I think. If we don’t have everything figured out by graduation, that won’t be the last chance to get it right, and that’s a comforting feeling.
“Babyteeth” is now available on VOD!
Featured image credit: Courtesy of IFC Films
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.