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Watching Babyteeth, I had a thought: serious or terminal illness dramas are the movie equivalent of Schrodinger's cat. No matter what the filmmakers do, their awareness of creating a work to be observed, and the audience's awareness of the baggage that comes with that (both pop culture and real-world baggage) fundamentally alters the viewing experience. Perhaps that's because, for the most part, these movies go one of two directions: inspirational, or heart-wrenchingly sad. Director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais (adapting her own novel) work hard with Babyteeth to defeat both of these factors, consciously avoiding many of the cliches that come with the territory and attempting to navigate a path that finds spots of joy without pumping her story up into something symbolic for the viewer. Their efforts aren't entirely successful, but they're admirable just the same.
Milla (Eliza Scanlen, who coincidentally got her big break playing Beth in Little Women, one of the most famous terminal illness cases in literary history) is heading to school and idly contemplating stepping in front of an oncoming train when Moses (Toby Wallace) clumsily and recklessly shoves past her at top speed, only to stop right at the edge of the platform. There's no question that Moses, a drug dealer who spends his free time stealing prescription medications, is trouble, but his rougher qualities can't obscure his guileless personality. Milla's parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), naturally don't approve, especially given the fact that he's a few years older than Milla, but as the chemo and the likelihood that she will die start to take their toll on her, they reluctantly take a step back, believing that allowing Milla an opportunity to live whatever life she has left is more valuable than conforming to "responsible" parenting.
Part of the Schrodinger quality to these sorts of movies is the significance assigned to moments in retrospect versus when they're actually happening. What might be meant as a throwaway comment in the moment could hold a great importance to those who are left behind when a person is gone, which is a transformation that movies are not inherently equipped to articulate. Instead, there's a tendency for movies to assign profound emotions upfront, strings swelling, tears flowing, because for the viewer, the story will begin and end within a couple of hours. The best moments in Babyteeth aren't necessarily the significant ones, but the small, unexpected ripple effects of the characters and their unexpected relationships to one another: Henry's awkward encounter with pregnant neighbor Toby (Emily Barclay), whose dog shares his name; the oblivious rudeness of a friend who insists on borrowing Milla's wig to see what she'd look like with longer hair, planning for a formal Milla might not survive to see; Anna debating whether or not she should abandon her piano lessons to help Milla ("I don't have anything else to give,"); Moses complimenting the smell of Anna's laundry detergent, and their subsequent discussion of Milla sleeping under the piano as a child. Most of these incidents are a result of Milla's illness, but generally exist adjacent to the illness -- strange moments of emotional connection that spring out of everyone trying to navigate a tough situation.
For Murphy and Kalnejais, the heart of Babyteeth is the complicated relationship between Milla and Moses. Moses genuinely cares for Milla but is not emotionally or psychologically prepared to deal with the things that Milla is going through, and his inherent selfishness often gets in his way. Milla likes Moses, but there is an air of realism to her attraction. In normal circumstances, Moses might not be the one, but when she can draw out his charming side, he's sweet enough to make do. Both performers are very good, and their chemistry together has an authenticity, but the relationship never quite clicks, perhaps because Moses says the wrong thing one too many times. Still, the thread conveys Milla's ongoing struggle to try and do the things that young women traditionally get to do while wondering if this will be her only chance.
Murphy shows skill as a filmmaker, allowing moments to play out nicely and staging scenes with handheld that gives the movie an intimate energy. She has also assembled a pretty great soundtrack, consisting of classical music and modern pop music, showing off her skill at building a moment around a song when Milla and Moses attend a party. The use of little on-screen captions is a little hokey (perhaps chapter titles or important little bits of prose from the original novel), but pretty minor in the scheme of things.
The original poster artwork, of Milla sitting poolside, is the basis for the Blu-ray artwork, using complementary font colors to create a striking look out of pink, teal, and orange. The same basic colors provide a backdrop that continues around the spine and onto the rear. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Babyteeth is a rare modern pillarboxed transfer, a 1.66:1 1080p AVC presentation with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track. The cinematography, by Andrew Commis, is extremely nice -- modern low-budget films shot on digital can have a homogenous, clean, sterile sort of apperance, but there is a nice amount of nuance and subtlety to the lighting schemes and color palette that the disc handles very nicely. Contrast is rich enough to prevent low-light scenes from looking washed-out, with no significant issues with banding or compression artifacts, and fine detail is extremely strong. The film is largely a quiet, dialogue-driven movie, with environmental ambience, the occasional bit of score, or a modern pop song (and some classical tracks) providing the most opportunity for the track to stretch its wings, but there are certainly no issues to report. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Descriptive Audio track and Spanish subtitles are also included.
No extras are included on this disc.
Trailers for The Trip to Italy, How to Build a Girl, Premature, Olympic Dreams play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Babyteeth is also included.
Babyteeth is not completely successful, but when it works it's pretty compelling, finding interesting moments of emotional connection between these characters who are all figuring out how to deal with the elephant in the room. Director Shannon Murphy shows great promise in her debut feature. IFC's Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty great, but is disappointingly devoid of extras. Recommended.
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