Grief is often seen as a short-lived but powerful phenomenon, a vehemently chaotic upsetting of the established emotional order than sweeps in, does incalculable damage before receding leaving painfully temporary damage in its wake.
People treat it as something that comes after a terrible event, a vicious interlude in the otherwise tranquil passing of life that is healed with time, which is apparently, in popular thinking at least, some sort of panacea for all existential ills.
But as Australian coming-of-age film Babyteeth makes sensitively and insightfully clear, grief begins its slow, soon-overwhelming rise well before the event that acts as its obvious catalyst, reshaping peoples’ lives even before the final, cataclysmic blow arrives in all its terrible glory.
In the Sydney-set film, directed by Shannon Murphy to a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais (who adapted from her play of the same name), teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) is experiencing a cancer relapse, with chemo looming and an unspoken sense that the end is near, though no one, least of all her loving if relationally broken parents Anna and Henry (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn) wants to admit to that.
But Milla feels it, her silent dread apparent in the opening scene on a Sydney railway platform where she waits introspectively and without apparent emotion for her train home while her classmates talk animatedly around her.
It’s clear something is wrong but Murphy lets the scene play out quietly and in real time, heavy with portent and an understanding that everything is far from normal and will never be the same again.
Quite how great a divergence is coming becomes quickly obvious when junkie Moses (Toby Wallace) meets Milla on the platform, a coming together of two lost souls so profound, for the latter at least, that she forgoes catching her train to spend time with a troubled young man she barely knows.
It’s here that Babyteeth begins subverting expectations, a pattern which continues to glorious narrative effect throughout the film which doesn’t follow the assumed path for a story of this kind, save for one crucial event which cannot be ignored or avoided.
As Milla’s nose begins to bleed, Moses whips off his shirt, holding it up to staunch the flow of blood in an act, which although a little unorthodox and rough speaks to his kindness of heart.
It would be all too easy to paint Moses in the starkly troubled colours of the junkie archetype, and while there are some obvious pointers to his fallen place in life – the estranged relationship with his brother Isaac (Zach Grech) and his mother, his theft of medicines and items to sell, no established place of abode but the streets – Moses is rendered is a complex character, a young man who wants to best his demons and be loved and to love but can’t quite find the means to do so.
Similarly, Milla is not your typical teenager cancer sufferer, suffering with noble, articulate intent and pithy, witty dialogue.
Milla is clearly tired of what is implied is a long and recurrent battle, and as the reality of her reality begins to impinge of her and her parents, she begins acting out in ways that make sense when you realise she knows death is close and she has little time to make good on all the things she wants to do.
Babyteeth is powerful because unlike the preternaturally insightful and life-insightful teens of Hollywoods coming-of-death/terminal disease traumas, Milla doesn’t really know what she wants to do before the end comes, which makes her like any other teenager still trying to figure out life.
So when she meets Moses, all she sees is a kind and caring person who offers an alluring escape, by dint of her very difference and otherness, from the suffocating sameness of a life which is rapidly offering less and less time to make good on any opportunities to figure things out.
Anna and Henry see something else entirely, of course, with Moses, viewed as a corrupting influence on their beautiful, perfect daughter whom Anna in particular treats with kid gloves, forgoing time spent making music together – Anna is a classically trained pianist while Milla plays the violin, taught in gorgeously idiosyncratic style by Anna’s old classmate and love interest, Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder) – in favour of keeping her safe and well.
Neither perspective is entirely accurate nor is in inaccurate with everyone in the family struggling to make situation of an intolerable situation and its resulting collateral damage of their relationships with each other and on the family unit as a whole.
Eventually however, some fairly unusual decisions are made with the very best of intentions at their heart, and Moses becomes a somewhat begrudged part of the family, one which grows, temporarily at least, to include pregnant next door neighbour Toby (Emily Barclay), Gidon and his young student Tin Wah (Edward Lau) and Moses’ brother Isaac.
It is a far cry from what Henry and Anna imagined their life would be, especially in Milla’s last days, but as Babyteeth unfolds in affectingly quirky and languorous fashion, artfully observed without eschewing one ounce of achingly beautiful and truthful humanity, it becomes clear that this is what Milla needs and what she will get.
As Henry says to Moses when he invites him to live with the family – “I don’t like you but for some reason, my daughter thinks you’re pretty special … and right now, Milla deserves to have the world at her feet.”
So nuanced and quietly spoken is Babyteeth, though again with forfeiting any of its potent emotional power, that it’s not until the searingly sad though beautiful final act that you realise how deeply you come to know these people, how much you have come to care for their understandably flawed but love-filled lives, and how grief begins to make its mark long before the obvious catalyst event which sets it fiercely and unrelentingly in motion.
Babyteeth is an immensely affecting, exquisitely well-made film that in its own offbeat but authentically human style, explores what it means to grieve long before and long after the moment when life changes forever, and how it asks to make some seemingly unpalatable choices which may seem like entirely the wrong thing at the time, and possibly are flawed as hell, but which come to mean more than you could possibly imagine they would, giving you something to hang on when the final bell tolls and grief consumes all, memories and connections to cling to when the inevitable comes to pass and all choice is taken from you in ways too terrible to contemplate.