“Babyteeth” on Netflix Just Destroyed Me (10/10 Would Recommend)

I skim-read a glowing review and I thought “huh, looks interesting” and so last week, on New Year’s Eve, I pressed Play on the film Babyteeth (which was made in 2019, and is newly available on Netflix). Then half an hour later I paused the film because I could tell it was the sort of film I’d need to think about, and I wanted to drink cocktails and laugh a bit, because it was New Year’s Eve. So I turned off the TV.

Picture via theupcoming.co.uk

Then half an hour later I paused the film because I could tell it was the sort of film I’d need to think about, and I wanted to drink cocktails and laugh a bit, because it was New Year’s Eve. So I turned off the TV.

I went back to Babyteeth the next day though and that time, I did think about it. That time, I concentrated. And then the film hauled me down a deep emotional hole and kept me there until I wondered if I had any tears left.

Babyteeth is about a teenage girl, Milla, who is very very sick. But this film is not “illness porn”. There are no hospital scenes or details given of her cancer at any stage; in fact, it isn’t mentioned at all until several scenes into the film, and then it’s really a side note, mentioned in a scene-setting subtitle.

The film is about Milla and it’s about her parents, too, a psychiatrist and his constantly-sedated wife. She is a woman who is slowly falling apart behind her neat shirtdresses and her eucalyptus-laden stylish dining tables. He is a tired and gentle man whose sadness has weighed down every grey inch of his disappointed skin. They are separate but they are united in their love for Milla and in their constant fear of her worsening illness.

The film begins with Milla meeting, on a train station platform, a 23-year-old junkie called Moses. Moses has face tattoos, a badly-cut mullet, bad teeth, and unwashed clothes; but Milla is instantly smitten. He is similarly smitten not with her but with the fact that an invitation to her affluent family home provides him with easy access to prescription medications by the handful.

Moses treats Milla appallingly badly from the very start. He breaks into her house. He steals her anti-nausea drugs. He takes her out partying and they dance dreamily through the night, colours swirling hyper-real around them, but then he abandons her on a cold rooftop where she almost dies, sick as she is, and out on her own in the sky.

Milla’s parents’ eventual acceptance of Moses as the person who is bringing light to their daughters’ dull, sick eyes is a revelation. They don’t accept him graciously. This is not a trite story of love conquering all.

Instead, resigned, they reluctantly watch their daughter blossom under the light of a sun none of them dared hope she would live to see: the warm, golden, jubilant sun of first love. They tolerate Moses because they love Milla, and it becomes one of their greatest gifts to her as her parents.

The film is beautifully made. Artistically, it’s a marvel: set in sun-drenched Australia, the colours are hyper-real in the heat, clashing and contrasting in the outdoor scenes and muted and musical in the indoor ones.

There is so much more to this film than the beauty of it, though. As a woman, I found it utterly harrowing. Somehow, although it’s a deftly lighthearted film with large ribbons of comedy woven through all of it, it manages to strike chords that speak clearly to the fact that it was written and directed by women (Rita Kalnejais and Shannon Murphy, respectively).

Because, although the film centers on Milla, it’s her mother Anna we learn the most from. She talks over dinner in a sedated ramble of her fear, due to a forceps delivery, of Milla having a misshapen head (and how ludicrous that fear now seems, as cancer reveals Milla’s little head to her again; we see her realize this, too).

We learn about the struggle she had as a young mother to remain dedicated to playing the piano and we learn how guilty she now feels for employing a babysitter, who spent with Milla the precious hours she now wants back.

We see her with her bravely and immaculately blow-dried hair, stepping into pretty wedge heels, but tiredly tucking her knickers into her bag after trying unsuccessfully to seduce her husband on his lunch break. She is so clearly trying to be everything to everyone and she can’t do it.

She can’t be an alluring woman in her sexual prime and an accomplished, talented pianist and also watch her daughter fade into illness whilst trying to defend her against the wayward Moses and retain the interest of her desolate, lost husband. She can’t do it. She can’t do it all. We can’t do it all, can we?

But we try, and she tries, and Kalnejais and Murphy tell the story of it beautifully. The final scenes of this film had me howling silently because they are pitched so exquisitely well. They pull the viewer’s emotions taut between the characters and then, at breaking point, they let them go. It’s a feminist masterpiece.

I felt wrung-out when I finished watching Babyteeth. Although I watch a lot of films, it’s books and words that usually speak the most clearly to me; films don’t, usually, affect me in the same way. But this one pummelled me.

It pummelled me in a good way: I felt cleansed afterward, like I’d been given another little bit of context for my thoughts, for my life, for my space in the world as a woman. Perhaps because I’m a similar age to Anna in the film, or perhaps because I have teenage daughters, or perhaps because I have felt that pressure all of my life to be all things to all people, it felt almost like therapy.

And I’d recommend it as “almost like therapy” to pretty much everyone. (This isn’t an unqualified recommendation. If you’re feeling fragile or low, then despite its outwardly sunny tone, this film is not likely to lift your spirits. That’s an understatement).

But as a piece of outstanding feminist filmmaking, with a story that’ll stay with you for a lot longer than the credits take to roll and a soundtrack you’ll instantly search for on Spotify then yes. I think everyone should watch it. I think being wrung out is very much an experience that ought to be shared.

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