This hilarious, bittersweet comedy from Australian director Shannon Murphy is among the sparkiest feature film debuts in recent memory
The setup for Babyteeth, the debut film from Australian director Shannon Murphy, sounds like pure Sundance bait: a teen girl with leukaemia (Eliza Scanlen) falls for a homeless drug addict with a ridiculous haircut (Toby Wallace), much to the consternation of her dysfunctional parents (Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn). But every time you expect Babyteeth to zig towards a melodramatic cliche it zags, surprising at every turn, even as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion.
You won't find a livelier film about death. Like Pedro Almodóvar, Murphy has a keen sense for colour, composition and kitsch, but her image never sits still for long, with cinematographer Andrew Commis also adroit at jagged handheld sequences and editor Stephen Evans prone to witty smash cuts. The episodic structure is divided up with chapter titles like 'Insomnia', 'Nausea' and 'A Little Bit High', all written in the film's predominant colour palette of aquamarines, acid pinks and electric blues. Meanwhile on the soundtrack, the eclectic sounds skip from tUnE-yArDs to Vashti Bunyan via Mozart.
All four leads give performances you can't take your eyes off. Scanlen, whose character is prone to knowing fourth-wall-breaking glances at the audience, is utterly convincing as a young woman who knows she doesn't have long to live and isn't ready to waste a second of what she has left. As her over-medicated mother, Davis calls to mind her fellow countrywoman and namesake Judy Davis, the master of playing women on the edge. Wallace, meanwhile, is charisma personified, like a Shia LaBeouf character without the preening self-regard. And despite being in every second movie released, Mendelsohn hasn't worn out his welcome onscreen; his sadsack psychiatrist routine here suggests he's got a rich furrow to explore once he's exhausted playing the bad guy roles in every major Hollywood film franchise.
What makes Babyteeth feel laundry fresh, however, is its lively quirks in visuals and humour seem to emanate from the vitality of these performers and their characters, rather than Murphy showing off her virtuosity. This is among the sparkiest debuts in recent memory.