‘Babyteeth’ Review: Love Means Never Having, Well, You Know

About 20 minutes into “Babyteeth,” Milla — the teenager at the center of this wafting, prettily shot story — shows up bald, the long hair that a boy once praised now gone. There’s no explanation though for her newly shaved head and from the testy conversation that she has with her mother and the mention of “support” it’s obvious that Milla has become ill. As signaled by the unicorn adorning her T-shirt nothing about Milla is meant to be ordinary, something this movie tries very hard to convey.

Directed by Shannon Murphy from a script that Rita Kalnejais adapted from her play of the same title, “Babyteeth” is such a fragile, earnest and inoffensive thing that I almost feel bad for not liking it more. It’s a coming-of-age story in a gently if overly studied eccentric key that follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen) as she finds love and grapples with her parents. Her mother and father are played by the nicely matched Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, who show you the wear and tear of a shared life, both the pain and the adoration. The movie could have used more of them.

Milla meets her guy, the improbably named Moses (a charismatic Toby Wallace) shortly after the movie begins. He compliments her, and then hits her up for money. An anxious-to-please stray who always looks like he just woke up in a rubbish heap, Moses has perpetually red knuckles and a conspicuous drug habit. At first, he seems to hang around Milla so he can steal her meds. But he proves to be a prince in greasy threads, a sad-boy fantasy who proves as pure-hearted as Milla, or rather as the story needs him to be. And so, nestled by the caressing cinematography, they float into love.

With her director of photography, Andrew Commis, Murphy creates a visually cohesive world filled with lambent images that almost but not quite feel as if they had been caught on the fly. She’s attentive to color, light and texture, as is evident from the shots of a child waiting alone, a bee struggling in a pool. These pinpricks of beauty are appealing but because Murphy is trying hard to avoid obviousness they soon feel like swirling dust motes. The movie has texture but no depth, tears but no snot. Who are these people, I kept wondering. What’s ailing Milla? Does Moses ever shower?

Scanlen can be appealingly vibrant and spiky, as she showed with her performance as a feral baby doll in the HBO series “Sharp Objects.” (She also played Beth in the recent “Little Women.”) But in “Babyteeth,” Murphy has solicited a largely recessive turn from the actress, whose masklike face often remains locked in neutral. Time and again, you look for some feeling to break through and help anchor Murphy’s expressionism, with its narrative ellipses and colored lights. Instead, as the attractive first hour gives way to the repetitive second, it just drifts and drifts and, alas, so does your attention.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. Rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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