For a guy who mostly made his name playing a series of slovenly weasels, Ben Mendelsohn is having a surprising renaissance as the loving but melancholic father. Fresh off his turn as the haunted cop father in HBO’s The Outsider, Mendolsohn once again plays sad dad in Babyteeth, this time in his natural Aussie accent, anchoring an unforgettable ensemble piece about tragedy and dysfunction. It’s hard to know where exactly Babyteeth is going at first, but it gets its hooks in so deep that when you finally have to let it go it’s exquisitely painful.
Mendelsohn plays Henry, a vaguely disheveled, sagely bedraggled (is there any other kind of Ben Mendolsohn character?) psychiatrist in the Sydney suburbs (you can always tell a film shot in Australia by the ever-present hum of insects and birds) who keeps a weekly appointment with his wife, Anna (Essie Davis from The Babadook). They meet up every Tuesday to have sex and discuss Anna’s medication, with a dynamic that you first interpret as an illicit affair, which is probably the point. Babyteeth, from director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais, always keeps us half a step off balance. Their film has that a sense of casual naughtiness, a straightforward love of innocent mischief common to the best Australian movies, which in this case serves to leaven the central tragedy.
Henry and Anna are attempting to cope, in different ways, with their sick teenage daughter, Milla (Eliza Scanlen from Little Women and Sharp Objects). Milla, meanwhile, is trying to be a teenager while dealing with health problems way outside her maturity-grade, all while living with parents who seem to be unraveling — probably because of her. When she meets squirrelly drug addict Moses (Toby Wallace) at the train station, it’s hard to tell whether her attraction to him is rebellion, schoolgirl crush, or both.
When Moses, meanwhile, a fine-boned feral boy with high cheekbones, a chiseled rat-tail, and the odd face tattoo, takes a shine to Milla, it’s hard to tell if he’s attracted to this underage girl (he’s 23) or just all the drugs she has access to. Even in a movie full of heavy hitters Wallace’s performance as Moses stands out as iconic.
Moses is a uniquely Australian take on The Hopelesss Scumbag You Can’t Help But Love, always clad in small shorts with some filthy but fashionably patterned shirt billowing off his wiry frame like Steven Tyler’s mic stand. Like Shia LaBeouf in American Honey you can practically smell Moses through the screen, yet even as he steals drugs from his family he maintains his Tiger Beat cover boy sexuality, irresistible to Milla and for anyone older, the kind of kid you want to simultaneously hug and whack upside the head with rolled-up newspaper. He’s sweet, he’s an idiot, he’s a puppy who constantly shits on the carpet.
When Game Of Thrones was trying to wrap up, it seemed we had many conversations about the difference between gardeners and architects. That is, storytellers who start with a plot outline (architects) vs. those who start with a few characters and try to imagine what they’d do and sort of let the story grow from there (gardeners). I can’t say I know anything about Kalnejais and Murphy’s process, and there certainly are plot events that stand out as turning points in retrospect, but it’s the ultimate credit to their abilities that Babyteeth certainly seems to define a gardening project. Not a moment in it feels contrived or out of place, even as it’s consistently surprising.
Other players in this drama include: Henry and Anna’s pregnant trashy neighbor (on whom Henry may have a crush), Moses’s long-suffering family, and Milla’s passionate Russian music teacher (who may have history with Anna). In the midst of a swirling tragedy they eventually come to a unique homeostasis, where everyone’s individual instabilities somehow complement one another perfectly enough to create a stable whole. It represents the ultimate dream of family. The tragedy is how fleeting it all is in the end.
Yes, Babyteeth is the kind of movie that will rip your heart out. But it will be a good cry. You’ll be glad you took the ride.