The tone is set with the odd, edgy “meet cute” for the young lovers. It’s on an Australian train platform where the tattooed, punk druggy bumps the girl in her school uniform aside so he can get close enough to feel the train pass by.
And then there’s the nosebleed she gets when he deigns to chat with her, his near-tackling way of “treating” that nosebleed. Of course she’s smitten.
But “Babyteeth” really begins when 16 year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) brings self-administered rat-tail cut 23 year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) over for dinner. Dad (Ben Mendelsohn) is a psychiatrist, inclined to sort of roll with this, even the fact that Moses took the dog-trimmer clippers to Milla.
But Mum, played by Essie Davis?
“I’m a bit FREAKED out by that,” she smiles. “But, um, lucky for everyone I forgot, when I took a Zoloft, that I took two Xanax while I was WAITING for you at the hairdressers, to show up, thinking you must have been ABDUCTED, because why ELSE would you not even call?”
Characters circle around this notion of “normal” in the debut feature of Aussie TV director Shannon Murphy. But everybody, from rebellious and naive Milla to Toby to half-tuned-out, prescription-happy Dad and heavily-medicated Mum, is just plain “off.”
The first act is built on an almost giddy collection of introductions that includes “Anna and Henry’s Tuesday Appointment” (screenwriter Rita Kalnejais likes “chapter headings”), the afternoon sex break for Dad Henry and manic mother Anna.
Henry takes business calls, mid-coitus, and hands out pills afterward.
Moses, by rights, should scare Milla off. But she has her reasons. A big early “reveal” is coming, but downplayed — almost disguised. And then we see her bald.
The new neighbor (Emily Barclay) is very pregnant, dizzy and has a dog named “Henry.” And even though Henry works from home, we see him walking by her “to work” appointments, striking up conversations. Maybe he’s seeing people at the hospital. Or maybe he’s just…interested.
And there’s the whimsically cranky violin teacher (Eugene Gilfedder), who chews on Milla with “Everything you touch, you destroy.”
“Go to hell!”
She doesn’t shout it. He doesn’t take it personally. But when you’re the kind of sick that makes you bald, your patience for Mozart isn’t what it used to be.
Milla thinks she’s in love, even if she’s not stupid enough to be sure it’s reciprocated. Moses has figured out a shrink’s house is a good place to find drugs.
Anna is on so many pills that she’s both pathetic, and something of a riot to have around.
“Feeling very relaxed...right now. I hope it isn’t...a stroke.”
Davis (of “True History of the Kelly Gang” and “The Babadook”) is a marvel, so needy, broken, miserable and hilarious as Anna that we never know if pity, fury or giggles is the right response to her.
The often showy Mendelsohn recognized this and makes Henry a contrasting study in sturdy, with the hint of something disturbing underneath.
You don’t have to have seen TV’s “Sharp Objects” to pick up on the open-face, open-heart qualities that Scanlen shares in common with her co-star on that show, Amy Adams. She is a revelation here; amusing, infuriating and then heart-breaking.
Because you know, at some point, the giggling fades, the magical first-visit-to-a-rave and sneaking out to see the boy (man) Mom has warned to “stay away from my daughter” ends. The string runs out.
Like many a first film from someone experienced in episodic TV, “Babyteeth” gives us a lot to chew on. But in this case, that turns it into the very best kind of emotional roller-coaster, one that wins its laughs and earns its tears.
In a year without blockbusters, this Aussie indie marvel stands out — one of the best films of the summer.
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, sex, profanity
Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis, Toby Wallace and Ben Mendelsohn
Credits: Directed by Shannon Murphy, script by Rita Kalnejais. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:58