Culture

Film

Cutting her teeth

By Andy Hazel
Darkly comic and unmistakably Australian, Shannon Murphy’s film ‘Babyteeth’ hits Australian screens on a wave of accolades

Shannon Murphy

I met Shannon Murphy in a small restaurant at the Mövenpick Hotel in Marrakech, where her new film Babyteeth is playing in competition at the Marrakech International Film Festival. She completed shooting her episodes of TV series Killing Eve the previous week and, though she looks like someone intimately familiar with long days of hard graft, her passion is apparent in every word and gesture.

“My particular episodes happened to focus a lot on Jodie Comer’s character, Villanelle,” she says. “I’ve had the most incredible time working with Jodie Comer, she is such a performance animal. I’ve actually never really experienced anything quite like it. I hope that we’ll keep working together in the future because I have to say that’s been just an extraordinary experience.”

The past 12 months have seen the Australian director’s profile soar. Her two episodes of Killing Eve are among its most acclaimed, and Babyteeth opens here to a rapturous response.

The film vividly tells the story of a seriously ill teenage girl, her self-medicating parents and the small-time drug dealer who inveigles himself into their lives. Screenwriter Rita Kalnejais’s hopeful and affectionate treatment of the characters sets the film apart from other coming-of-age stories. That a film so full of specifically Australian humour can cross cultures so easily is a testament to the humanism at the heart of Kalnejais’s screenplay, and the direction of Shannon Murphy.

“When I read a script and I am very connected to it, I’m also terrified about how to get it to work,” Murphy tells me, stirring sugar into her coffee. “But that’s why I want to do it. The tone of Babyteeth was so unique that I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s going to be a challenge to really nail and honour that’, but that’s why I wanted to do it. I was so…” she trails off, searching the middle distance for the right word, “destroyed … by where the story goes, I thought, ‘How am I going to do that in a way that still makes people want to see it?’ Because, you try to describe the film and forget it, it sounds like a million other things you’ve seen. Although, that’s your job!” she laughs.

The opening scenes of Babyteeth show schoolgirl Milla Finlay meeting, and quickly falling for, a roguish street kid named Moses, shortly after she begins chemotherapy. Although Milla’s parents, Anna and Henry (played by Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn), disapprove of the relationship, it blossoms. As Anna and Henry struggle to balance Milla’s vacillations between dependence and independence, Moses grows closer to each member of the family, eventually moving into their house, while Milla forces the Finlay family to reinvent their relationships.

Babyteeth employs a brash colour palette, bold sound design that evokes summer in suburban Sydney, and production design that is rich in specificities, but it’s the film’s ability to balance humour and despair, lightness alongside poignancy, that has struck many as the mark of a powerful new director.

“I don’t believe in drama that’s only heavy,” Murphy says. “That’s not how people are. Rita and I have a very similar sense of humour … When we’re faced with the most challenging moments in our life is when we’re making the most inappropriate jokes, you know?” she smiles. “And it’s also a very Australian thing to do, to make fun or make light of really harrowing situations. It’s kind of how we cope.”

Ben Mendelsohn agrees. At a roundtable interview later that day, he was asked whether he thought Babyteeth was a story that demonstrated “uniquely Australian virtues”.

“I don’t think they are uniquely Australian,” Mendelsohn replied, “but I’ve been living in America, and the idea that you would tolerate a junkie boy living in your terminally ill daughter’s house just struck me as a particular kind of moral dilemma that could take place at home a lot more easily than it would in America.”

Mendelsohn continued, “I read that script and I just thought it was really beautiful. It is one of my most favourite films I’ve ever made. I absolutely fucking love that film. I just think it has an incredibly feminine sensibility to it. It’s muscular, it’s beautiful, it’s beautifully responsive. If it was directed by a man it would have been…” he trailed off and an expression of vague revulsion clouded his face before his attention returned to the room. “It really far exceeded my expectations and it did so in a very soft, quiet storm kind of way.”

The public’s introduction to Babyteeth came in 2012, when Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre company staged Kalnejais’s play, under the direction of Eamon Flack. “I wanted to write about how love undoes you and makes you honest,” said Kalnejais on its release. “Everyone falls in love in this play. It’s a very dark comedy but I just wanted to learn about love in the face of loss, and the intensity and wonder of that.”

The film’s intensity and wonder spiral out from its main protagonist, Milla, ensnaring first her family and Moses, then the small community she knows, including her music teacher, a young student of his, her schoolmates and a neighbour. Each reacts in their own way and deals with the challenges her situation sets them. One of Murphy’s strengths is depicting the complexity of Milla’s character, striking a balance between portraying her physiological weaknesses alongside her emotional immaturity and the strength of her spirit, as she transitions from child to adult.

“She’s been kept in a cocoon by her parents because she’s quite a sickly child,” Murphy tells me. “Often for children who have had cancer, whatever age you’ve gotten sick, your parents kind of freeze you in that time and don’t want you to get older, essentially, because they want to be there to protect you.”

Milla is played by 21-year-old actor Eliza Scanlen, whose turn as Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women marked an impressive run of increasingly high-profile roles, from Tabitha Ford in Home and Away to Amma Crellin in the HBO TV series Sharp Objects. More recently, Scanlen’s directorial debut, Mukbang, about a young woman’s exploration of the South Korean online culture of binge-eating, won her the award for best direction in a short film at the Sydney Film Festival. (The film quickly attracted criticism regarding its “lack of cultural competency”, to which Scanlen responded, “I failed to recognise how problematic this was. I take full responsibility for this.”)

Scanlen shares the screen with Toby Wallace, best known for his role as Campbell Eliot in Netflix series The Society. Wallace’s performance in Babyteeth has already earned him the prize for best new talent at the Venice Film Festival, several months prior to Marrakech. The day after I spoke with Shannon Murphy, I ran into Wallace outside a black-tie retrospective screening of Mad Max. Looking a million miles from Moses, scrubbed up and dapper in a black suit, I mistake Wallace for a doorman, a faux pas we quickly laugh off. After realising my mistake, I compliment him on how sharp he looks in it.

Unfortunately, the suit doesn’t get another outing a few days later when he wins the festival’s award for best actor, because Wallace is already back working in the US. Mendelsohn, accepting the award on his behalf, says Wallace is “a spectacular young Australian actor who, in this film, traverses the difficult territory of a drug addict and a ne’er-do-well. He floats above it in a sublime way.”

Murphy attributes much of the actors’ success to their ability to engage with the warmth and humour of Kalnejais’s screenplay. “What I love about Rita’s writing is sometimes it just meanders a bit and it doesn’t solve itself necessarily. That’s also much more authentic. It’s not always perfectly laid out or tied up for you,” she says. “Rita once described Babyteeth as a story about how good it is not to be dead yet, and I thought that is the tone,” she says with another easy smile.

One of the film’s most striking qualities, and one that amplifies this sense of both joy and dread, is its evocation of summer in suburban Australia. Many viewers will find the film nostalgically familiar with its warm colour scheme, recurring icy poles and poolside conversations, but it’s an environment redolent with threat due to the film’s claustrophobic sound design.

Filming took place in the suffocating heat of suburban Sydney in February, as Murphy explains. It’s a time when “the insects and the birds are going mental. Cicadas are so loud on every track of audio in the film that we knew it was going to be a problem. But I really like to embrace noisy sound design. So often the sound of things is so clean and perfect that it feels fake. It’s manufactured. It’s disconnected. They’ve lost the essence of what was really there. It’s the same with performance. For me, it’s all about it being raw and in the moment.”

“It wasn’t a fun shoot,” says Mendelsohn, with an exasperated sigh. “It was a pain in the arse. It was really difficult. It was really, really hot … But the way a film feels when you’re making it is no guide whatsoever. They can feel wonderful and then you can get the surprise of, ’yeah, you had a great time and it sucks’. Much better is to have a really shit time and they end up well.”

Murphy agrees that it was a difficult shoot, but on-set challenges are often worked into the shoot and seen more as opportunities than hindrances. “I don’t like things to ever be too clean or perfect,” she says. “I like mistakes, that’s why I like to shoot rehearsals. Even in television, the cinematographers are like, ‘Oh Shannon, please let us have one test with the camera’, but I don’t even like to do that because if something amazing happens or a mistake happens, I’m never going to get that back. You just cannot recreate it. I really prefer to keep everybody excited and on their toes.”

Babyteeth is in cinemas from July 23.

Andy Hazel

Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer and The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

Shannon Murphy

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