“Babyteeth”‘s maudlin dying teen love story has no bite

Babyteeth Eliza Scanlen in Babyteeth (IFC Films)

The only sighs Shannon Murphy’s tragic romantic drama elicits are of boredom.

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If you churned up The Fault in Our Stars or A Walk to Remember and ran them through the glitter-crusted machinery of HBO’s Euphoria, you’d probably end up with something like Babyteeth. Basically, it’s your standard cancer-ridden tale of puppy love, with the dark and moody factor kicked way up a notch.

Australian director Shannon Murphy’s first feature is full of the hallmarks of millennial indie cinema: muted color palettes, hypnotic party scenes set to indie rock (in this case, the Tune-Yards nearly 10-year-old hit “Bizniss”), overtly quirky title cards in hot-pink Helvetica. It employs all these tricks to tell the story of 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women) who has an unnamed and aggressive form of cancer and has just fallen in love with her parents’ worst nightmare: Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old addict and dealer.

To say the film has a lot going on would be an understatement. Amid all the YA-friendly melodrama, we’ve also got subplots about her parents’ rocky marriage; her mother’s (Essie Davis, The Babadook) dependence on pills and sorrow over her lost youth; her father’s (Ben Mendelsohn, HBO’s The Outsider) boredom and seemingly roving eye; and Moses’s own complicated relationship with his estranged family.

Are any of these threads explored in depth? No. In fact, it’s not even really clear why Milla and Moses have a relationship at all. Or perhaps if the veneer of young, dumb love is enough to explain it for you (and I grant that it might be), then Babyteeth fails to make you see why you should care about it, let alone root for it.

The film’s biggest problem is that, while it clearly has a story it wants to tell, it doesn’t know how to do it. It’s as if it hopes its window dressing is enough to make you forget that, for the entire 118-minute running time, you’re not really sure what anyone really wants or why.

The film’s biggest problem is that, while it clearly has a story it wants to tell, it doesn’t know how to do it.

Take Milla, for instance: she’s clearly struggling with facing death at such a young age, but we don’t really know anything about her. We get a scene where she asks Moses for reasons unknown to shave her head, but we don’t know how she feels about love or relationships. We see her twirl and dance wildly in the middle of her violin lesson, but we don’t know how she feels about music, what her relationship with her teacher is, or what she really values in the little life she has left. Each scene is absolutely rife with texture, but the actual text is lacking.

Her parents don’t fare much better as characters. They aren’t just struggling with Milla’s illness, but her new relationship with Moses. However, we don’t actually see them make much of an attempt to handle it or understand it, which makes their responses to it feel chaotic and bizarre. We could understand some of the off-the-wall choices they make in this regard (and believe me, some of their parenting decisions are truly questionable) if we were ever let in on why they were making them, and if those decisions were ever properly set up rather than dropped in the middle of the plot like a bomb.

Because Babyteeth is more concerned with how it looks and feels than what it’s really saying, the weight of the drama never really hits. You’re not particularly invested in the characters, because you don’t really know them. So whether their decisions and actions go according to plan or not, it doesn’t really matter. If it pulls at your heartstrings, it’s more because the lighting or the music cue hits just right, and less because you actually care about anyone in it.

This isn’t nearly enough to prevent it from feeling like a complete slog. It’s a dramedy where the drama never really hits and the comedy doesn’t land. Without either, all you’re really left with is a millennial-pink mess.

Babyteeth is available on VOD starting June 19th.

Babyteeth Trailer:

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