The sick-girl genre exploded in popularity after novelist John Green’s 2012 book, The Fault in Our Stars, and the Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort 2014 adaptation of the same name. If I Stay, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Everything, Everything, and a cascade of other teen romances have soured the originality of Green’s story. One can only hope that Babyteeth, Australia’s entry into this trite coming-of-age subgenre, is the last of its kind.
Teenaged Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness when she runs into the seedy Moses (Toby Wallace) at a train station. Moses, a 23-year-old drug dealer, is an imperfect partner for Milla. Milla and Moses trade abysmal haircuts and become fast friends despite her parents’ (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) disapproval. As Milla’s condition worsens and Moses is kicked out of his home, Milla suggests that Moses move in with her family. Moses and Milla’s parents must learn to coexist for her sake.
Despite outward disapproval, Henry (Mendelsohn) and Anna (Davis) show a comical amount of patience with Moses. In one of their first interactions with the boy, he’s caught stealing Milla’s medication for his own use. Babyteeth wants to shame its audience for judging a bedraggled book by its cover, but Moses is rarely selfless and never proves to have the heart of gold that screenwriter Rita Kalnejais is driving at.
Cinematographer Andrew Commis’s gentle photography and balanced performances by Davis and Mendelsohn are the best parts of Babyteeth. Commis and debut-director Shannon Murphy (Killing Eve) bring a dream-like quality to Babyteeth, ideal for a coming-of-age romance.
Mendelsohn, who found American fame in his middle ages, has buoyed Rogue One, Captain Marvel, and HBO’s adaptation of the Stephen King series, The Outsider. American audiences may recognize Davis from another HBO series—she portrays the edifying Lady Crane in Game of Thrones. The two bring a feeling of stability, love, and control to their household, even if the material doesn’t always reflect that.
Babyteeth is the most eccentric of the dying-girl movies, but it doesn’t satirize the narrative convention or bring a big cry, which is a central draw for the genre. Scanlen is an atypical choice for the lead, which was played by Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars and Olivia Cooke in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Scanlen is notable for playing Amy Adams’s surreptitious sister in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects; in Babyteeth, she is muted but angsty, never allowed to offer a memorable emotion.
Although Babyteeth’s familial drama brings laughs, it can’t separate itself from an overdone and unremarkable genre. A brief side plot featuring Anna and Milla’s piano teacher (Eugene Gilfedder) is emblematic of the whole: it’s uninspired and imminently forgettable.