It’s hard to avoid the twin evils of mawkishness and misery when making a film about cancer, but Shannon Murphy navigates those potential pitfalls brilliantly with Babyteeth, her debut feature.

At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Milla (Eliza Scanlen), other than a nosebleed seemingly caused by her dizzying meet-cute with charming small-time crook Moses (Toby Wallace). The pair have a sweet and unstable chemistry, though the script’s one big cliché is that Milla is not only terminally ill but virginal, emphasising her purity and the cancer that will soon destroy it.

The rest of the time writer Rita Kalnejais is tremendous, giving the cast some witty one-liners and surprising but authentic character arcs. Every member of this ensemble is on fine form, particularly Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn as Milla’s parents struggling with their own awkward impulses. Mendelsohn in particular has become a Hollywood rent-a-villain in recent years so it’s a delight to find him in a more subtle, soulful mood.

Films of this type tend to deal in dayglo YOLO quirk (see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and if Babyteeth doesn’t quite escape that familiar template, it at least offers some moving examples of how the end of a life can make every impulse more important. Normally one would not continue to court a juvenile drug dealer after he’s threatened your mother with a meat prong, but when your days are numbered, anything goes.

Equally, Davis and Mendelsohn initially resist Milla hanging around with Moses, but they soon realise that they would do whatever it takes to make their daughter happy, however unconventional. Isn’t that what being a parent is all about?

Babyteeth presents two exciting new voices in Kalnejais and Murphy, both of whom show a rare skill for combining comedy and tragedy that will make them ones to watch.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

CAST: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis

DIRECTOR: Shannon Murphy

WRITER: Rita Kalnejais

SYNOPSIS: When seriously ill teenager Milla falls madly in love with smalltime drug dealer Moses, it’s her parents’ worst nightmare. But as Milla’s first brush with love brings her a new lust for …