“Babyteeth” avoids almost every cliche you might expect in this kind of material. Henry and Anna don’t forbid Milla to see Moses. Moses is their daughter’s first love, as ridiculous a choice as he may seem. Milla might not live to adulthood, and they don’t want to deny her the experience. At one point, Henry and Anna stand in the kitchen, watching Milla and Moses wrestle in the back yard, and Anna drones, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine.”
“Babyteeth” is a quartet (there are a couple of peripheral characters who feel tacked on). Henry, Anna, Mille, and Moses share the screen: it’s their story, not just Milla’s. Mendelsohn has such a kind face, but it’s kindness soured with a kind of philosophical realism. Within that realism is a world of tenderness. Mendelsohn is often quite heartbreaking here. Essie Davis, who gave one of my favorite performances of 2014 in “The Babadook,” is both funny and poignant: Anna is clearly addicted to pills, running from the ghosts of her thwarted past, as well as the ghosts of a future without her daughter. Together, Mendelsohn and Davis—with frayed nerves and exhausted resources—create an extremely real long-married couple.
The real laurels go to Eliza Scanlen, who’s had quite a year, with HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” “Little Women” and “Emma,” practically back to back. In both “Little Women” and “Emma” she played secondary characters, and “Babyteeth” shows she can carry a film. When Milla stares at the back of Moses’ neck, Scanlen isn’t just showing Milla’s first experience of desire. What is on Scanlen’s face is a kind of quiet grateful awe, that this boy is here, miraculously, that she gets to feel these new feelings. It’s an amazing performance. And Wallace, so open, so accessible, is nothing less than a wonder. He has the rare gift of personal charisma, and—in playing Moses—it’s not charisma calculated to get something in return, but the real deal.
The teenage girl + cancer/illness combo is used in film so often it’s a cliche, a lazy shortcut so the lead male character can learn/grow/change. “Love Story” (1970) launched a million imitators still clogging the landscape: “A Walk to Remember,” “Garden State,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl“… But “Babyteeth” doesn’t work that way. Cancer is the shadow under which the characters live. All of them are grieving, and not dealing with it well. Both Milla and Moses transform. Not because Milla has cancer and is therefore “inspirational”, but because love is a transformative experience.