By Leah Greenblatt
June 16, 2020 at 08:30 PM EDT
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IFC Films

If nice girls only liked nice boys, the world might be a kinder, simpler place. But of course it would be a less interesting one, too — one without stories like Babyteeth (in theaters and on VOD June 19), a tender, raw-nerved portrait of adolescent longing and first love.

With her demure bangs and her violin case, 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) looks like the kind of high school innocent still waiting for her first kiss, though it's only the next train home she's looking for when she stumbles into a small-time drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace) on a Sydney subway platform; seven years older and clearly trouble, from his fuzzy rat-tail to the ragged script tattooed across his cheekbone.

For her, the crush is instantaneous; for him, it's less clear. But what at first seems like a reckless bid for his attention soon gets to the source: Milla has a recurring cancer, and not much time, maybe, to pack in all the wild work of living. It also explains why her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) seem to be struggling to maintain their own sanity — and why they allow Moses, against all their better instincts, to become part of her world.

Actress-turned-filmmaker Shannon Murphy previously helmed several episodes of Killing Eve, and there's a certain sensibility to Babyteeth that fits that mold: a sort of fiercely feminine, quietly transgressive visual and emotional style. There are telling echoes too of everything from American Beauty's cracked vision of suburbia to the fever-dream intensity of more recent the-kids-are-not-alright touchstones like Waves or American Honey.

The screenplay, by Rita Kalnejais, isn't immune to some familiar movie-of-the-week tropes, especially ones surrounding teenagers and terminal illness. But even as the basic elements of the story line suggest something much closer to mainstream YA and its incurable fondness for Big Issues, the film tends to upend those ideas as often as it hews to them.

Also crucial is Murphy's particular knack for using music and color to convey the hothouse longings of her characters; heady metaphors served in the atonal jangle of post punk or the throbbing kaleidoscope of strobe lights at a house party. And the space she leaves her actors to breathe real life between the lines: Scanlen (Sharp Objects, Little Women) is fantastically vivid as a girl who hears the clock ticking but still desperately wants to feel everything; Wallace, his bedroom eyes perpetually rimmed red, is a walking ball of dirtbag charisma.

Davis and Bloodline Emmy winner Mendelsohn, both Australian screen veterans, do the less glamorous work of being sad, angry adults, though it's often their ordinary grief that grounds the movie, even as their stories lean into the clichés of certain coping mechanisms (Pills! Infidelity! Bargaining with God!).

All the two of them really want is to see their daughter safe and happy; Moses may be bad news for the first hope, but he's also the surest path to the second. More than anything, though, they love Milla ferociously, and on that count, the bruising, bittersweet Babyteeth meets them more than halfway. B+

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