The Transformative Powers of Chemo-Girl


Babyteeth, a highly quirky, Australian disease-of-the-week dramedy, surprisingly delivers the goods by its finale. About ten minutes before the end credits roll, you might actually experience a really major lump in your throat and a sizeable eye-watering. Not bad at all for a play adaptation that, although unerringly cast, still comes off at times as a series of stage scenes stitched together.

Which reminds me of when The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, after viewing Jaws, had a drink with a weathered Hollywood director. Noting her amazement at how the then-young Steven Spielberg toyed with the film frame, her date responded, "He must never have seen a play; he's the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch."

Here, helmer Shannon Murphy seldom lets you forget that playwright Rita Kalnejais's adaption of her own work was once proscenium-arch bound. Each scene is labeled. "Anna and Henry's Tuesday Appointment," "When Milla Brought Moses Home to Meet Her Parents," and "Relapse, Milla Starts Chemo" are a few examples. If you blink during the last listing, you might be thrown for a loop when the heroine shows up suddenly with a bald head.

The storyline is rather simple. Milla (Eliza Scanlen), an uptight 15-year-old lass with violin case in hand, is awaiting a train with her schoolmates. As the engine huffs into the station, Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old drug addict with splotchy skin and worse tattoos, rushes past Milla, giving her a hefty shove as he seemingly wants to throw himself against the moving vehicle. He's seeking a rush, and by doing so, he inadvertently crashes through Milla's staidness. She's instantly infatuated, especially after her nose starts bleeding and the lad takes off his unlaundered shirt and gives it to her as a hanky.

Meanwhile back on the home front, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), Milla's mom and dad, are playing at patient and therapist, their foreplay leading to a bout of afternoon intercourse. Henry, who actually is a psychiatrist, thinks nothing of answering a phone mid-orgasm and conversing about his clientele, "Really! Can you get her last MRI scan ready for me?"  No wonder Anna is loaded up on Ativan, Zoloft, and several other anti-anxiety pills.

What follows are a series of off-the-wall incidents that seem to be begging for a laugh track and an 8:30 time slot on a Tuesday night. Case in point, Henry meets his highly pregnant, sexy neighbor who's lost her dog whose name happens to be Henry, too.  Consequently, every time she shouts for her pet, guess who turns around? Bet you can't wait until the human Henry haphazardly changes her lightbulb. Or the scene where Anna makes breakfast for the unshowered Moses after he breaks into the family home to steal drugs and threatens her with a kitchen knife.

But interspersed among these rather silly carryings-on are genuinely superb moments such as when in the school bathroom, a classmate asks to try on Milla's wig.  After at first demurring, Milla hands over her blonde locks, revealing her vulnerable scalp. Then quietly she edges into a wall so as not to appear exposed in the selfie her posing pal is taking.

Throughout, even in the tonally outlandish moments, the acting is first rate, which is not surprising if you've seen Scalen in Little Women, Davis in The Babadook, and Mendelsohn in everything he's done. Newcomer Wallace has also been garnering acclaim for his performance.

What's odd, though, yet intriguing is that there are several moments where Milla brazenly breaks the fourth wall and looks at us directly. She seems to be stating she has everything and everyone under control no matter how much it might seem otherwise. This Milla is going to live life to the fullest and bend it to her demands. She simply doesn't know how to lose.

(On Amazon Prime and On Demand.)

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