director Shannon Murphy
Over dinner two evenings before going to see Babyteeth, we discussed films with our Swiss friends, as we always do. They’d seen The Castle and didn’t understand how it was funny. It is, of course, highly culturally specific, as Australian films often are.
It is great to be able to report, therefore, on the success of Babyteeth in the Zurich Film Festival, following hot on the heels of Venice, where the film received its world premiere. A packed house was enthusiastic and engrossed . It laughed and wept on cue and I saw no sign of that barrier which stopped my friends understanding The Castle. There was a lot of clapping at the end, both for the film and then for director Murphy, taking time out from work she is doing in London to do a Q&A.
Toby Wallace won the Venice Prize for best young actor, no doubt richly deserved. But all the actors are splendid. Essie Davis, star of The Babadook, playing pharmaceutically messed up Anna, is a nice juxtaposition to Wallace’s petty drugged up chancer Moses. Everybody is nuanced, nobody is defined by their failings. Ben Mendelsohn’s Henry – how sad that this is his first Australian appearance in nine years – looks stronger than his wife, but it’s only because he’s quieter. There is a particularly poignant moment where he discovers his wife has stopped taking her drugs. He goes a little crazy: ‘you cannot cannot cannot crack up now’ he yells at her (and I am paraphrasing). Ah yes, it’s one of those moments where you impose on others your own weakness. He says that because he is about to crack up as is shortly revealed. As for Eliza Scanlen as Milla, I thought comments by director Murphy after the screening reflected how great an actor she will become. Murphy said that she was ‘scared’ by how hard it was to tell what Scanlen is. The small support cast to these four shines.
I will make the point that this feels like a true ensemble, as befits a group turning a play into film, directed by a theatre director stepping into the film director’s shoes for the first time. Interestingly, she has added at least one theatrical effect – the use of the titles to divide the film into small acts/scenes – without falling into the trap of it becoming stagey in that way plays used to be on film. I imagine a small budget helps create this cohesiveness. When I asked Murphy what that was, she wasn’t sure she was allowed to say, but the figure 3M is in the ballpark.
I don’t want to write anything here that makes the movie sound corny – robust Australian humour will always stop that. However, I want to make the point that critical to the movie is not Milla, but Moses. And, thinking about that name, it seems to me that he is like the biblical character. He parts the waters for this dysfunctional, suffering family and it is through him that they are able to cross from one hard place to another, which will give them the peace they are unable to find on their own.
There is a shameful history in Australian cinema of films being lauded overseas and shunned at home. I do pray this isn’t the case with Babyteeth, it deserves to be a hit.