We've got a full breakdown of the complex conclusion to one of this summer's best-reviewed (and most surprising) films
Credit: IFC Films

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Babyteeth.

The Aussie indie Babyteeth is far from a conventional tearjerker, wrapping familiar elements in an eccentric package that defies expectations for a romantic teen cancer story. The central focus is on Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a terminally ill 16-year-old who falls for a 23-year-old drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace), to the consternation of her parents, Anna and Henry (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn). The Fault in Our Stars, it ain't.

True to form, viewers will probably predict the essential elements of the film's ending, but the way it arrives still manages to surprise. Late in the film, Milla asks Moses to suffocate her, to save her parents the pain of a long goodbye. He can't go through with it, but wakes up the next morning to find Milla has died. It's left ambiguous as to exactly how, though as director Shannon Murphy puts it, "Either way, it does feel like it's her choice." (The opening moments of the film also hint at this, as Milla stands perched on a train platform, seeming to contemplate jumping onto the tracks.)

"I think Milla wants it to end, because not only does she want the pain to end, the incredible pain, she knows at that point that Moses has to take care of her parents, and be there for her parents," adds Scanlen. "So it feels like the best time to go, when no one is sitting by her side on the hospital bed waiting for that time to come. In many ways, her parents are unwilling to adapt to the circumstances as much as Milla is. At some point in the film, roles switch, and Milla becomes the parent, and I think Henry and Anna become the broken children who need to be comforted and held."

According to Murphy, it's a reflection of a real-life situation in which young people with cancer or other illnesses often find themselves.

"Talking to child cancer specialists, they say that when a child is diagnosed with a terminal illness, even when the child is ready to die, or feels like they want certain things for their death, even doctors struggle with that. So they often will continue to medicate a child way past the point where they should, which makes [the child's] quality of life not good," the filmmaker says. "So I think what was really beautiful about this story, and important, is that we should be listening to them. In fact, it's 100 percent the only person we should be listening to in that situation."

Murphy also emphasizes the notes of hope in the film's mournful conclusion, with a final scene flashing back to a day at the beach where Milla implores her father to look after Moses when she's gone. After the heartrending sequence only moments before, the scene leaves the audience with a tangled bundle of emotions to process.

"What I loved about [the final scene] was it was like a coda," Murphy says. "It was about understanding that [Milla] had made a decision, and she was okay with where she was at. And also, you have that moment where you understand that Anna and Henry will get through this. There is no positive element of a child dying, and she will always be in that empty space that we leave at the end of the film. But there is hope in the belief that Anna and Henry will make it through this together."

Babyteeth is out now on VOD.

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