Saturday 22 August 2020

Pairs dancing: "Babyteeth"

The Australian comedy-drama Babyteeth seems likely to stand as the year's foremost cinematic statement on the enduring attraction of good girls for bad boys. We join teenage heroine Milla (Eliza Scanlen, from Greta Gerwig's Little Women) at her wits' end, cursed with late-stage cancer, and about to take a final leap off a railway platform in the direction of any oncoming train. What she's looking for, peering over the platform edge, is relief from her pain, and perhaps a reason to live besides. She finds both - albeit a reason to live one might only find when approaching wits' end - when a straggly stranger jolts her out of her suicidal reverie: this is Moses (Toby Wallace), an older street kid with a rat's-tail haircut, especially shitty tattoos, and a generally shifty demeanour. (He concludes the pair's first encounter by asking Milla for money, becoming the first guardian angel in screen history to seek payment for his services.) Moses makes such minor pop-cultural figures as Post Malone or Machine Gun Kelly - young men you can barely glance at without contracting chlamydia of the eye - seem like someone you could comfortably take home to meet the folks. The crux of Shannon Murphy's film is what happens when Milla does bring Moses home, and then after Moses breaks into her family's well-appointed home to fix a midnight snack and thereafter starts hanging around like a pungent pong. That he's not immediately shooed away at the doorstep has something to do with Milla's parents - moustachioed, foursquare shrink Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and his bored, medicated wife Anna (Essie Davis) - wanting to appear far less conventional than they actually are. The two couples are mirrors: watching Henry and Anna, you might well wonder how those two normies ever got together, and how they've made it last, notwithstanding the pills the shrink pushes his wife's way. But then that's attraction, and that's life: you can analyse the heck out of it, and at the end of the day, it's still a bloody mystery.

Babyteeth originated in the theatre (Rita Kalnejais adapted from her own 2012 play), and the set-up has obvious precedents: Theorem and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (a movie that always feels as though it should have started life on the stage), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a run of brittle mismatched-couple comedies, up to and including Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage and Noah Baumbach's While We're Young. What the glowing early reviews hadn't quite primed me for is how much of Babyteeth operates in a key of heightened naturalism, if not outright non-naturalism. Kalnejais's characterisations are all somewhat eccentric from the get-go: Anna is introduced attempting to tempt her husband to abandon a sandwich for a lunchtime quickie on his desk. Tonally, we're not a million miles from the BBC's cherishable if underseen sitcom Cuckoo; but Kalnejais and Murphy take structural risks, laying out Milla's haphazard progress through chemo in self-sealed, individually announced scenes (with pastel-shaded headings) that jolt the narrative on days or weeks at a time. Initially, it's jarring, and it could alienate any viewer who likes to settle into a film (something about those pastels set my own back teeth on edge), but their combined effect, and it's an appreciable one, is to nudge Babyteeth past the Fault in Our Stars blandness into which it threatens to lapse. Instead, something of the characters' eccentricity - their refusal to sit still and stay in one place, dangerous whenever Milla skips a course of treatment, funny when Henry walks out on a patient mid-session to attend to a pregnant neighbour - gets into the movie's bloodstream, yielding sequences that never quite play out as you expect. Demonstrating an insensitivity that would be painful if it weren't so hilarious, a schoolfriend steals off with the long blonde wig Milla uses to conceal her baldness in order to try out a new look; Murphy gets a laugh simply by stamping a pastel "FUCK THIS" at the head of one scene.

It wouldn't work anywhere near as well as it does without the performers it has; casting directors Kirsty McGregor and Stevie Ray emerge as the unsung heroes of the project, finding the exact right ensemble to flesh out a sound piece of stage writing into surprising, affecting, multi-dimensional cinema. Scanlen and Wallace are among the few recent juvenile leads who actually look and feel like dorky, goofy, smelly kids, forming a stellar example of those couples you look at and think "yeah, that'll never work", only to find yourself confounded by how sweet and charming they are together. If Mendelsohn and Davis at first seem here as mere comic counterpoint, they soon bring out the very serious, underlying flaws in Henry and Anna's marriage, as both parties wonder whether the youngsters they're arguing about are actually a better match than they themselves are. It was a quiet masterstroke to cast Mendelsohn, generally a compelling heavy, as someone worrying whether he's grown too normal for his wife; clock how Anna, drifting through life in a narcotic haze, perks up when she catches her man injecting morphine. That's typical of Kalnejais' oddly rhythmed yet ever-empathetic writing, which resists the temptation to tie these episodes into neat little homilies, instead wading waist-deep into the messiness of these lives: the slips and fuck-ups, all that cannot be controlled, be that the unfinished, unhappy business between Moses and his mother, or a climactic bedroom scene that doesn't go the way anybody anticipated. I suspect its quirks and leftfield turns will throw off as many people as they draw in - again, attraction is a strange, unpredictable thing - but Kalnejais and Murphy have succeeded in doing something genuinely unruly with the standard cancer narrative. You might even call it life-affirming, were Babyteeth not so determined to blow a loud raspberry in the direction of such pieties.

Babyteeth is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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