Babyteeth at Venezia 76: hackneyed nonsense
If I wear a Superman costume, am I Superman?
The answer is, of course, no: I am merely a normal man wearing a Superman costume.
Nobody would be fooled – Superman isn’t real. But what if I wore a police uniform? I’m still not a police officer – merely a man wearing a police uniform – but there’s a much higher chance that passers-by might be fooled by my dress sense. They may actually think that I am a police officer, when I’m not – I’m just a student (and incidental film critic). That might lead them to act towards me – to reappraise me – in a way that’s inappropriate to my actual standing.
This discourse, as random as it might seem, will hopefully help you understand the issue that I have with Babyteeth, the debut film of Australian director Shannon Murphy. Babyteeth is, in every way, the standard ‘teen with cancer coming-of-age weepie’ film that you know and hate – the emotional manipulation, extreme dosages of sentimentality and predictable plot arcs – but this time, it’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Murphy’s attempts at a faux-edgy, Tumblr-cum-Sundance aesthetic attempt to cover up the roaring human vacuum at the heart of Rita Kalnejais’ script.
Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a 16-year-old living with an undisclosed form of cancer. Her wealthy parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), try to protect her from the dangers of the world – keeping her at home and sending her to music lessons in her spare time. But teenagers will be teenagers, and living with cancer compels Milla to live a little more recklessly than she otherwise might have done. One day, she’s bumped into on a train platform by Moses (Toby Wallace), a spaced-out, much-older drug dealer who quickly becomes a romantic presence in her life, much to the chagrin of her parents.
For the first hour, things actually seem a little hopeful – if standard. Titles on the screen inform us that Milla has relapsed and is going through chemotherapy, but the film doesn’t feel the need to dwell on her treatment like some sadistic spectacle. The reality of her cancer hangs in the background but isn’t used as a sentimental excuse for a tissue moment. An interesting question remains over whether Moses is in it for Milla, or in it for Henry’s supply of mind-altering drugs (he’s a psychiatrist); and also over whether Henry and Anna will welcome Moses into their lives or continue to ward him off at every opportunity.
But all that goes out of the window in the film’s intensely mawkish second half, which attempts to drop as many faux-deep Instagram life observations and squeeze as many pitiful tears out of its audience as possible. A dreadful time-travelling coda, needlessly inserted after the story has finished, pushes the emotional buttons so obviously that it took all my strength not to burst out laughing in the auditorium. Rarely is melodramatic machinery so exposed on the silver screen.
The problem is that we’ve rarely seen this sort of sentimental, uninspiring nonsense look so beautiful. Andrew Commis’ shimmering cinematography makes Milla’s world look almost vaporwave – harsh concrete structures juxtaposed behind lush green vegetation and swirling clusters of luminous multicolour. The constant use of intertitles, which often implicitly break the fourth wall, is interesting and always aesthetically wonderful. Amelia Gebler’s costume design casts everyone as an extra from a psychedelic music festival – I’ve never seen so many great printed shirts in one place – whilst Amanda Brown’s vibrant electronic score complements the visual palette perfectly.
But this is all just window-dressing for a piece of work that it’s almost impossible to argue is anything more than the sum of its parts. It’s hip, it’s by a debut female director, and it features several wonderful performances from up-and-coming actors. It’s all too easy to let the allure of Babyteeth distract us from the fact that there’s nothing separating it from Five Feet Apart.
For me, Babyteeth showcases the power of spectacle – of image, of advertising. It shows that if you dress a piece of trite nonsense that we’ve already seen countless times before in a hip aesthetic and modern politics, that some of the world’s top critics will lack the capacity to peer underneath its smooth veneer to the emptiness beneath. You’re crying because a child is dying of cancer, not because Babyteeth has earned your sympathy; unlike, say, The Fault in Our Stars, though, an attempt has been made to hide this core under a pile of a e s t h e t I c t e x t. This may be one of the most dishonest films I’ve ever seen – a neon pink Instagram slogan to be thrown carelessly into teenage bedrooms and forgotten forever.