Rating: (3 stars)
Of the actresses who played the four March sisters in last year’s Oscar-winning adaptation of “Little Women,” Eliza Scanlen, as Beth, was the least well-known — and sadly, the least raved-over for her performance. Now the Australian actress has a second chance to win your attention, in “Babyteeth.”
Coincidentally, Scanlen plays another doomed character: Milla, an Australian high school student with a terminal illness who falls in love with a 23-year-old guy who is bad for her in almost every way, including the fact that he’s a small-time drug dealer, thief and emotionally manipulative liar. (Weirdly, despite all that — and his mullet-y rattail and homemade face tattoos, Toby Wallace, as Moses, manages to exude a slyly sexy charm. By the end, he’s proof that everyone is redeemable.)
This is sort of a love story, but also sort of not. The feature debut of director Shannon Murphy — who is known for her TV work, including two episodes of the new season of “Killing Eve” — “Babyteeth” is more of a coming-of-age tale, albeit one that uses mortality to gently coax, not force, its narrative of maturation.
Written by Rita Kalnejais, based on her own 2012 play, “Babyteeth” works precisely because it refuses to accommodate expectation. If Milla makes a bad life choice in Moses — a character who is himself defined by bad life choices — so do her parents Henry and Anna (Ben Mendelsohn of “The King” and Essie Davis of “True History of the Kelly Gang”). Henry’s a psychiatrist who is a little too free and easy with the prescription pad, and Anna is a mother driven to desperate, if well-meaning, decisions: Mom marvels at how far she has allowed herself to go down the road of bad parenting after inviting Moses to move in with them.
Somehow, this perversity works — at least dramatically, if not in terms of a functioning family unit. Who among us might not also wish to indulge the impulses of a dying child? But crepes for dinner is one thing, and Moses is quite another.
He is, however, just one moving part in this odd, and oddly affecting drama, which also wraps up in its generous embrace a pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay) who flirts with Henry and a slightly sad music teacher (Eugene Gilfedder) who remembers Anna from when she was young. Mostly the show belongs to Milla, to whom Scanlen brings an intensity of spirit that burns with a small, hot flame, erasing all memory of Beth’s mousiness.
“Babyteeth” is about growing up — in ways that one might wish for, and others that one would not — but it’s also about healing, acceptance, forgiveness and the unavoidable messiness of being alive. In explaining why he won’t get a job, Moses says, “As soon as people choose one thing, they become obsessed with functionality, instead of ‘Is it beautiful?’ ” By that measure, “Babyteeth” — emotionally sprawling, untidy yet big-hearted, and brimming with genuine, if at times sloppy feeling — isn’t necessarily a well-oiled machine. But it is a lovely, eccentric little film.
Unrated. Available June 19 on various streaming platforms. Contains drug use, sexuality, coarse language and mature thematic material. 117 minutes.