Shannon Murphy’s ‘Babyteeth’ wows the critics in Venice

Ben Mendelsohn, Eliza Scanlen, Shannon Murphy and Toby Wallace at Venice Film Festival.

(L-R) Ben Mendelsohn, Eliza Scanlen, Shannon Murphy and Toby Wallace in Venice.

Shannon Murphy’s debut feature Babyteeth, a bittersweet comedy starring Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace, has been acclaimed by critics after its world premiere in official competition at the Venice International Film Festival.

Mendelsohn and Davis play a couple who discover their seriously ill teenage daughter Milla (Scanlen) has fallen in love with drug dealer Moses (Wallace). It’s her protective parents’ worst nightmare but Milla teaches those in her orbit how to live like there is nothing to lose.

Produced by Alex White and based on Rita Kalnejais’ play, it’s one of only two from female directors in Venice competition. However Murphy was not keen to address the gender issue, telling the media in Venice: “I think it’s a struggle to always have to answer questions about being a female filmmaker if I’m being honest. It takes away from the artistry of what we are doing and our production.”

The director was full of praise for Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative, as was executive producer Jan Chapman, who observed: “There are six or seven films from women about to be released in Australia so I’m very positive about the openness in the world to see how great female-led films are.”

Screen Daily’s Lee Marshall hailed the film as a “funny, affecting, comedy-tinged family drama” that will appeal to audiences in the market for a small, irreverent feelgood film that wears its art house credentials on its sleeve.

Marshall lauded Scanlen’s mixture of self-sufficient strength and willful contrariness that keeps flickering into vulnerability and despair, Wallis’ ability to switch between selfishness and sensitivity, and found Mendelsohn in what might be his best performance since Animal Kingdom and Davis utterly convincing as a couple both deeply in love and deeply divided.

Variety’s Guy Lodge greeted Babyteeth as the most youthful and surprising entry in this year’s Venice competition, which begins as a brittly amusing broken-family comedy before kicking into a richer, less guarded storytelling gear, leading to a “tear-stained stunner of a final act.”

Lodge advised the Hollywood studios that still make adult drama to make a beeline for Murphy, who is about to direct two episodes of the third season of BBC America’s Killing Eve.

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich declared Murphy’s “primal and surefooted debut never falls into either mawkishness or sadism,” observing: “It keeps you on your toes from the moment it starts, brings together a winsome but wounded group of people who are all struggling to slay the ‘tiny gods’ in their heads, and then forces them through an ordeal that might just break their hearts. And yours.”

Eugene Gilfedder plays Gidon, Milla’s violin teacher, with Emily Barclay as Toby, the pregnant new neighbour across the street.

Screen Australia backed the film with Create NSW,, Jan Chapman Films and Spectrum Films. Universal Pictures will release on behalf of eOne next year.