Harrowing but humorous film 'Babyteeth' finds laughter in pain

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Australian director Shannon Murphy manages to bring out the humor in pain and suffering in her tear-jerking film feature debut “Babyteeth”, a harrowing tale of a seriously ill teenage girl embracing life.

The 76th Venice Film Festival - Screening of the film "Babyteeth" in competition - Photocall - Venice, Italy, September 4, 2019 - Cast members pose. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

“Sharp Objects” actress Eliza Scanlen plays Milla, who while undergoing chemotherapy following a relapse falls in love with small-time drug dealer Moses.

Her parents disapprove of Moses but slowly realize he is helping Milla through her struggles.

The movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, is an intimate portrait of a family, showing their weaknesses, reliance on self-medication and coping mechanisms.

Based on the play by Australian playwright and actress Rita Kalnejais, the storyline is peppered with laugh-out loud moments even in the darkest of times.

“With my design team, we talked so much about how in every frame we wanted to have an element of humor if it was a heavy scene or an element of drama if it was a humorous scene,” Murphy, who has long worked in theater, told a news conference.

Milla, who dons various wigs including a blue cropped look, wants to enjoys the thrills of first-time love.

“We found a way for the quirkiness of Milla to exist within the darkness of the story,” Scanlen said.

She added she thought “Babyteeth” would appeal to younger audiences, describing Milla as the “most mature” of all the characters.

“She’s negotiating with three very distinct personalities and more often than not when you are at that age and you’re on the brink of womanhood you are trying to navigate your parents who are afraid to let go,” she said.

“Rogue One” and “Captain Marvel” actor Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Milla’s father, described the script as “a beautiful rendering of the finest virtues of Australia”.


“It’s a very powerful love story, and a very life-affirming story by a bunch of pretty contemporary, damaged, messy people,” he said, “That’s a real joy. It’s an incredibly beautiful piece, it makes me want to cry just talking about this film.”

Asked about mixing humor and pain in the script, Kalnejais recounted losing a friend in her 20s.

“I didn’t set out to write this story, it sort of just bubbled out of me,” she said.

“I guess my experience is that when people are in grief or having a really intense time they’re so funny - like you have to be funny to get through it and it kind of brings you closer together.”

Murphy is one of just two female directors out of a total 21 competing for the festival’s Golden Lion Prize.

Asked about the gender disparity in the film industry, she said: “It’s a real struggle always having to answer questions about being a female filmmaker.

“I feel like it takes away from the artistry of what we’re trying to do... and it also continues the mythology of the great male director and his poetic process and we’re constantly having to talk about the struggle and the hardship.”

Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Gareth Jones