A terminally ill teen gets to live out her days with the kind of guy few parents would approve of in any other scenario in Australian director Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth, which is out Friday in theaters and on-demand. When the older Moses (Toby Wallace) literally runs into Milla (Eliza Scanlen) on a train platform, she falls hard. His motivation is harder to sniff out, but it’s at least possibly rooted in opportunism: She ponies up money immediately when he explains his dire financial situation and brings him home to meet her parents, Anna (Essie Davis of The Babadook) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn). Moses’s drug habit and willingness to steal to support it is apparent virtually immediately; but instead of banishing him, Eliza’s psychiatrist father hatches a plan: He asks Moses to stay with the family in exchange for drugs that he can prescribe. He figures that his daughter, whose prognosis is not good, “should have the world at her feet right now.”
The moral shakiness of Henry’s plan provides the foundation of a movie full of uneasy observations and difficult truths. Anna’s and Henry’s relationship to drugs, all technically legal and thus of the socially acceptable variety, is presented more as a parallel than in contrast to that of Moses, a character that in less nuanced hands would be some unlikable hooligan. Wallace’s revelatory performance, via Murphy’s direction, strikes an incredible balance: You understand why Milla loves him and why her parents know it’s a bad idea for her to be with him, and yet allow it regardless. Based on the stage production of the same name, by Rita Kalnejais (who also wrote the movie’s screenplay), Babyteeth envisions a sort of temporary utopia wherein a teen girl gets to live the life she wants as it slips away.
Between Milla’s Day-Glo wigs and the mumbly approach to domestic drama, you might mistake Babyteeth as a quirk-fest upon viewing its trailer, but it’s actually much drier and less whimsical than that. “‘Quirky’ is my least favorite word on the planet these days,” Murphy told Jezebel earlier this month via phone from Australia. We discussed her allergy to over-explaining, her approach to portraying addiction, and why Milla was such a difficult character to cast. An edited and condensed transcription of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: What attracted you to Rita Kalnejais’s script?
SHANNON MURPHY: I was so distressed after reading it because I felt so upset that I was not going to have any more time with those characters. I thought, To pull this off is going to be really tricky, but that’s what drove me to make it. I thought this is going to be an incredible challenge to get this right. That drew me to it, as well as what it was saying, which was: Everyone is addicted to something. And yet, the story doesn’t judge these people for it. I was really into the idea of casting it in a way that you would fall in love with each character, irrespective of what drugs they were taking or how they might be behaving in this time of crisis.
I think the opioid epidemic has put things into perspective, but there has long seemed to be a divide in terms of social acceptability between using legal drugs and illegal ones, and I appreciated that this movie was more interested in blurring the lines than reaffirming that distinction.
I have a friend who works in rehabilitation for people who are struggling with addiction. I sent him the script and we met and talked about it. He just had this really beautiful, humanistic approach, going, “Take the drugs out of the conversation, and let’s talk about the behavior and what has led these people to this.” He would give me a lot of insightful potential backstories for the different characters. It was just connecting those dots beforehand and then working with the actors to share that.
You connected dots but you also erased some lines. Watching this movie, I felt that you must be allergic to over-explaining.
Completely. So often, when I watch TV or film, I go, “No one would ever say that line.” You can say it back out loud to yourself and go, “No, I’ve never heard anyone talk like that,” or, “Why would you say that in that moment?” I think for me, it’s about interrogating that. But you know, Rita is completely the same, so she had already done a lot of that. There were some things we took out in the edit, of course, but already on the page often, it was that way. Rita would cut things as we were rehearsing, and I think that’s the mark of a brilliant writer: Knowing how important what is not said is.
Is, in fact, a total aversion to spoon-feeding people your m.o.?
Yeah, I do think that because those are the kinds of films that I really love and respect. I think the payoff is really strong when you watch them. Audiences are smarter than that. I think they want more. At the end of the day, you remember the movies that got into your bones because they made you work harder as an audience member.
It feels like challenging films are harder and harder to find.
Why do they do that? It’s so disturbing to me. I appreciate escapism, I love that as well, but it doesn’t have to be easy watching. I wonder if this time of covid is going to have us come out demanding more of ourselves and everything.
I hope it yields a greater market for smaller, quieter, more independent movies. I know CGI explosions have their place, but I don’t think we need new movies full of them every week on the week.
I don’t know why people want, again and again, a different version of the same story. I know through history we have retold stories, but I think the whole point of a filmmaker is to challenge that and to do it in a way that no one has seen before. I mean, I don’t know how people could find joy in making that world. I guess it’s money, and that’s sad.
I felt like the title cards that delineate the movie’s chapters were a very efficient way of conveying what was going on and then allow the characters to behave naturally so that they’re not wrapped up in exposition, like, “Our daughter is dying of cancer. What should we do?”
We played this thing like, “We’re not even going to say the C-word.” It was important to us that it wasn’t a cancer film any more than it was a story about a girl playing the violin. That’s not how people define themselves. We talked to a lot of experts who work with children with terminal illness and they were saying that so often, they’re not dwelling on it all the time. They don’t want to be the cancer kid, and also they are rebelling sometimes more than teenagers who aren’t sick because they can feel this ticking time and they know they’ve got to experience things at a rapid rate. They’re electric and pulsing and feeling things in such an intense way, which teenagers do naturally, but they’re even on a more heightened level because of this existential crisis they’re having.
Which role was the hardest to cast? I would guess Moses.
I think Milla was the hardest to cast, but Moses was the hardest to craft and to nail. Toby had done a TV series version of Romper Stomper in Australia and I knew he could play a darker side, but what I wanted was someone who was generous and loving as Moses. When I auditioned him, I really saw that in him. Toby is a good-looking guy, but we spent a lot of time breaking his skin down and we gave him a very particular haircut, tattoos. It was about allowing Toby, who has a very joyful spirit, but also chaotic and darker energy at times… it was allowing all of that to channel into this new being that we were creating of Moses. And not judging him—I don’t think any of us judged any of the characters. We just loved them all. He did a lot of research, as well, with my friend who’s the drug and alcohol specialist to make sure he understood what he was taking, how that would affect him, without playing an unrealistic drug addict, which I think sometimes it can be pushed too far. People coping with addiction a lot of times may be covering it so that you don’t notice what they’re on.
Why was Milla so hard to cast?
I found on the page she was the hardest to define. When I was watching other actresses, they would give me moments of Milla, but Milla is so many different things because, from the moment you meet her, she is in flux. She’s changing, she’s trying to redefine who she is, she’s playing with her image, she’s falling in love for the first time, and having all these experiences she hasn’t before. I needed someone who could do too many things and I couldn’t find that person. Eliza had come in twice and both her auditions were so vastly different and then everything I watched of hers was so different. I kept going, “Who is this person?” I was having the same problem with Milla: “Who is this person?” We’d seen hundreds of Millas and we just came back to Eliza, who was the first person I auditioned. It’s that interesting thing where you come back to the first person you saw. As a first-time filmmaker, I was too scared to cast the first person I saw. I thought, “I’ve really got to explore everyone that’s out there.”
I’ve read reviews that point out the movie avoids being twee/overly saccharine. I wonder if it was in your head to avoid that kind of sensibility when making the movie.
Oh yeah. I mean, “quirky” is my least favorite word on the planet these days. Totally. What quirky does is I think it diminishes the teen experience a bit. Rita and I, I think, we don’t have that kind of sensibility, but also it’s not a very Australian trait. We’re very much a country of, “You’ll be right,” and using humor during really challenging situations. I think part of it is very Australian, and then the reality is people aren’t behaving like, “Oh woe is me!” in times of crisis. And so, it was constantly avoiding clichés. Any time it ever felt like it might be heading in that territory, Rita and I would talk about blowing that up and moving away from it. Nobody wants to watch something that they’ve seen before, and I think we keep getting these repeat stories because they’re not tapping into the way people currently are behaving. That’s always in flux. Look at the world now. We can’t ever predict how humans are going to respond to things and behave. It’s a really interesting time. You’ve always got to be ahead of that in order to be an authentic storyteller.