How Babyteeth finds the 'duality of humor and pain' in a teen cancer story
Mere months after making her big-screen debut as Beth in Little Women, Eliza Scanlen is about to break your heart all over again. The tender and quirky Australian indie Babyteeth, arriving on VOD Friday, weaves heavy subject matter — drug addiction, illness, dysfunctional parents — with a sharp script, dexterous filmmaking from first-time feature director Shannon Murphy, and a delightful cast anchored by Scanlen as an exuberant teen cancer patient named Milla.
"Coming back home to do a film that is so unexpected and poignant and complex was really exciting for me," the Sydney native tells EW, speaking from self-isolation Down Under. "Australia has an industry that I'm really proud of, and I think we have a really unique cinematic voice that belongs in the international sphere."
Babyteeth has that unique voice in spades, courtesy of Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais, who came up together in Sydney's theater scene. (Kalnejais adapted her own stage play for the screen.) The film follows Milla as she stumbles (literally) into a whirlwind relationship with Moses (Toby Wallace), a small-time drug dealer seven years her senior. The scuzzy, heavily tattooed young man greatly unnerves Milla's middle-class parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn), who are each grappling with their daughter's illness in their own dysfunctional way, but he also reinvigorates Milla's lust for life as her health is taking a turn for the worse.
Though Milla is immediately smitten with Moses, their offbeat relationship is not quite a romance, as Moses's attraction to Milla — or maybe to her stash of pills — is somewhat up in the air. The film never reduces the complicated factors at work, including but by no means limited to the duo's difference in age.
"Their interaction sits in this liminal space where it feels so full of love and lust," Scanlen says of Milla and Moses. "She wants someone who can help her experience the regular emotions that a human can experience in their life, in a short amount of time, and Moses ends up being that kind of thing for her. I think it's a really, really beautiful relationship, and it's a wonderful depiction of what first love is like."
The low-budget film was a distinct change of pace for Scanlen after two high-profile and very American projects, HBO's miniseries Sharp Objects and Greta Gerwig's major-studio period piece. "The thing I remember most vividly about Babyteeth is the heat that we worked in, and the confined spaces," Scanlen says with a laugh. "But there was an incredible sense of camaraderie, and it was everything that I had hoped for. Little Women was a wonderful experience, and also a great insight into what big projects are like, but independent films have other things to offer which are just as great."
It was an adjustment for Murphy as well, a former actress who has directed theater and television (including Killing Eve) for several years but is just now making the leap to the big screen. "For theater, you're trapped in a wide shot. And the reason I'm really loving film is, of course, the opportunity to do so much more technically," the filmmaker says. "After so many years, working with actors comes really naturally to me, but I'm still so invigorated and challenged by the technical side of cameras and lenses and lighting and editing."
That's not to say the actors were shortchanged. Murphy spent a week rehearsing with Scanlen, who set up an Instagram account in character as Milla. "In the morning, she would dance to different songs on her own in her bedroom, and it helped us to kind of work out how Milla moved in space," Murphy says. Wallace, meanwhile, spent time with a drug and alcohol specialist to get a better understanding of the psychology behind addiction.
"I think [Murphy] brings really honest performances out of people, because she she loves the people that she works with. And that's an important part to her process," Scanlen notes. "I gathered that she wants to see the person that she knows shine through the character. Otherwise, it's just a bit two-dimensional.
"In the audition, I had played a version of Milla that was quite outwardly weird, with probably a feigned weirdness," she continues. "Shannon pulled me aside and she said, 'You know, you don't have to try to be that weird version of Milla that you're trying to bring out of the script. You can just be yourself. That's all we're asking of you.' I realized that we wanted this character to be rooted in something real, that the actor needed to bring their own weirdness to it."
The result is a cliché-defying film that's as vivacious and multifaceted as its protagonist, walking a tricky tonal tightrope as it laces its potentially heavy-handed story with bursts of dark humor and eccentricity.
"A line that Rita came up with once was 'Babyteeth is a heartbreaking comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet.' And I think that really captures the tone of the piece," Murphy says. "It's irreverent, but it's also highly emotional, and I think that it's really authentic to the experience of young people going through that situation, and also falling in love for the first time."
"That was what initially drew me to the script so much, was Rita's clear voice as a writer. She can be incredibly funny at one moment, and then the next moment she can land a line that's absolutely heartbreaking," says Scanlen. "The dance between the two was definitely hard, but I think it's a perfect depiction of what it's like to live with someone who has an illness, because it's never just dark. When there's a lot of trauma in a family, more often than not, there's humor, and there's dark comedy, because it's the only way to get through it."
Adds Murphy, "We're very conscious of having, in every frame, that duality of humor and pain."