Bad boy is life-changer for dy­ing girl

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - THIS WEEKEND - BY LIND­SEY BAHR

“Baby­teeth” is guar­an­teed to get un­der your skin. This re­fresh­ingly orig­i­nal Aus­tralian in­die about a ter­mi­nally ill teen who falls in love with the wrong guy is de­signed to push all the but­tons: It’ll frus­trate, de­light, an­noy and dev­as­tate. In other words, it’s quite the jour­ney. But it’s one that mer­ci­fully avoids the trite sen­ti­men­tal­ity and emo­tional black­mail that have be­come clichés of the genre.

El­iza Scanlen stars as said teen, 16-year-old Milla Fin­lay, who is liv­ing with can­cer. Her par­ents, Henry (Ben Men­del­sohn) and Anna (Essie Davis), are well-off and lov­ing, but it’s not ex­actly happy times in the Fin­lay house­hold.

Henry is an obliv­i­ous ther­a­pist whose de­fault fix is ply­ing his wife with drugs, which just means she’s barely there. And Milla, mean­while, is at­tempt­ing to main­tain a sem­blance of nor­malcy, at­tend­ing her pri­vate school and mu­sic lessons, while also un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy and know­ing that she might not have much time left.

It’s un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances that Moses (Toby Wal­lace) comes

‘BABY­TEETH’

3 stars (out of 4)

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

Play­ing: on var­i­ous stream­ing plat­forms

Rated: No MPAA rat­ing, but con­tains drug use, sex­u­al­ity, coarse lan­guage and ma­ture the­matic ma­te­rial

Run­ning time: 1:57

crash­ing, lit­er­ally, into Milla’s life. He runs into her on a train plat­form and nearly pushes her onto the tracks. It’s a de­ranged meet­cute, since Moses is not your typ­i­cal movie teenager love in­ter­est. He is not some dreamy bad boy with a heart of gold. He is a rat-tailed, tat­tooed, 23-year-old drug ad­dict and dealer.

Moses is high and red-eyed most of the time, es­sen­tially home­less, un­re­li­able and, per­haps worst of all, un­will­ing and un­able to change. And the first thing he does is ask her for money. But some­thing about him snaps her out of a daze and she is im­prob­a­bly smit­ten.

Milla in­vites him into her life im­me­di­ately, much to the cha­grin of her par­ents.

Moses adds an el­e­ment of ex­ter­nal chaos to their al­ready in­ter­nally chaotic lives. Milla is sim­ply de­lighted by him. And in some ways, Henry and Anna seem to ap­pre­ci­ate the dis­trac­tion from the can­cer. Be­sides, Moses does have a sweet­ness and an abil­ity to sur­prise that makes you un­able to hate him. It is a tes­ta­ment to Wal­lace’s per­for­mance that you stay with him on this roller coaster.

“Baby­teeth” is an as­sured and stim­u­lat­ing fea­ture de­but from direc­tor Shan­non Mur­phy, who is work­ing with a script by Rita Kal­ne­jais. It is raw, funny and of­ten un­com­fort­able.

Scanlen, who played an­other sickly teen, Beth March, in Greta Ger­wig’s “Lit­tle Women,” is sim­ply won­der­ful as Milla, a role that in the wrong hands could have been too pre­cious or tragic or manic. Scanlen del­i­cately bal­ances strength, vul­ner­a­bil­ity and teenage yearn­ing to cre­ate a truly mem­o­rable char­ac­ter.

And de­spite a rocky and overly quirky in­tro, Men­del­sohn and Davis are equally su­perb as par­ents and part­ners try­ing to cling onto their daugh­ter for as long as they can and drift­ing apart in the process. Henry has one mo­ment with Moses that is sure to leave you in a pud­dle (the first of a few, no doubt).

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