As Roger Ebert liked to say, and as I love to repeat: It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. Babyteeth, the debut feature from Australian director Shannon Murphy, is a prime example. On its face, it’s yet another “teenage girl with cancer falls in love” story. But you haven’t seen this movie before.
Babyteeth announces right away it’s different in how it introduces us to 16-year-old Milla, looking rather frumpy standing on a train platform as she meets Moses, a guy in his early 20s with a terrible haircut and worse tattoos, who is probably on drugs, and who has the sort of strangely charming confidence that comes with being a little bit dumb and a little overly excitable. The attraction seems unusual, but in time we learn why it’s not. We meet Milla’s parents, who very clearly love Milla and each other, but who also have their own issues. They don’t like Moses, for good reason. But they also know their daughter is angry and struggling, they know she’s her own person and might need this, and despite Moses’ massive flaws, they have compassion.
The way characters and plot points are introduced is occasionally, purposefully jarring, but it makes Babyteeth consistently surprising. The way we learn Milla has cancer made me realize I had no idea where this was going—the only reason I spoiled it here is because it’s in every headline about the movie already. The film has a curious energy from its hard tone shifts, jumping from laugh-out-loud funny, to tender, to achingly sad, but while some movies can work despite such shifts, Babyteeth succeeds because of them. They all begin to coexist instead of fighting each other, leading to unexpected moments that feel all the more real.
Babyteeth is the sort of movie that reminds us why we watch movies. It takes something we think we know, shows us we definitely don’t, and reminds us a little bit of what it means to be human.