Coming Soon

Drama may have a place in life, but some of us have trouble determining the stage on which it’s most appropriate. Theaters and movie screens are certainly acceptable venues, but, when drama makes its presence felt on the stage of life, it may well have overstepped its bounds. That’s particularly true when it intrudes upon personal relationships, a place where its appearance may be unwanted, if not unhealthy. Such is the case in the long-tense dealings between an aging mother and her adult daughter in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new domestic comedy-drama, “The Truth” (“le Verità”) (web site, trailer).

Being a big screen diva is so demanding. It requires one to be constantly “on,” ever spinning the right impression to maintain that mystique but never revealing anything that could expose an unflattering image. Just ask Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve), a 70-something award-winning grand dame of French cinema whose career is winding down but who honestly believes she’s still a big deal. And, to prove she’s still relevant, she’s just released a memoir called The Truth, a glowing treatise wrapped up in a neat, tidy package designed to portray her as being just as grand and gracious in her off-screen life as in any of her movie roles. She’s also recently accepted a supporting part in an upcoming science fiction drama in which she plays the aging daughter of a mother (Manon Clavel) who never ages and holds on to her eternal youth, a character who, coincidentally, embodies Fabienne’s view of herself.

To celebrate these developments, Fabienne receives a visit from her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter living in New York with her husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a mediocre TV actor who’s managed to attain some success now that he’s come out of rehab, and her plucky 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). Mother Fabienne and daughter Lumir haven’t been especially close for a long time, largely because Madame Diva was too busy with herself to devote much time to her young one while she was growing up, often shuffling Lumir off with Sarah, a “friend” (and acting rival) who filled the role of maternal surrogate. Lumir grew fond of her caretaker, and resentful of the way her mother treated her, especially when the woman she supposedly considered a good friend died. But, lingering bitterness aside, Lumir attempts to approach her visit with as cheerful an attitude as possible.

Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve, left), self-absorbed grand dame of French cinema, welcomes her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche, right), for a visit upon the release of her mother’s long-awaited memoir in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Truth” (“le Verità”). Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Of course, sweetness soon turns sour when Lumir begins reading excerpts from The Truth. Barbs start flying when she comments on some of the outright lies that her mother packed into the book, such as the joy she supposedly received when picking up Lumir from school every day, something she never did, a task left in Sarah’s hands. And, when Lumir confronts Fabienne about these falsehoods, mother dearest casually dismisses them, ironically contending that telling “the truth” isn’t interesting enough for her fans and readers.

As Lumir’s temper simmers, Hank does his best to help keep calm in the family, as do others on hand, such as Fabienne’s lover, Jacques (Christian Crahay), Mme. Dangeville’s often-beleaguered handler, Luc (Alain Libolt), and the diva’s ex-husband (and Lumir’s father), Pierre (Roger Van Hool), who shows up out of the blue. They try to keep the peace under increasingly trying circumstances, recurring bouts of bickering and Fabienne’s signature flippant behavior, which doesn’t stop just because her daughter has come for a visit.

When these domestic incidents aren’t going on, Fabienne is chauffeured back and forth between home and the movie set. But, as filming progresses, Fabienne finds herself growing progressively anguished and uncomfortable. That’s because, although the movie she’s making has a sci-fi premise, its narrative is uncharacteristically sophisticated for this genre in that it’s also an intense mother-daughter drama. And, as the daughter character in this production, Fabienne starts to gain insights into her real-life daughter’s feelings – probably for the very first time. Through her portrayal of a child of an often-absent mother, Fabienne at last begins to appreciate much of what Lumir endured during her upbringing, an unsettling eye-opener. She begins to see how old hurts can linger on into adulthood, well past the time when many might contend that they should be forgotten and overcome.

On her way to work, award-winning film actress Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) readies to play a role that comes uncomfortably close to paralleling her off-screen life in “The Truth” (“le Verità”). Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Meanwhile, as Lumir stews over what she sees as her mother’s continuing lack of care and concern, she learns through conversations with Fabienne’s familiars that some of her recollections are erroneous, that a number of her supposed childhood memories are just plain wrong. There may indeed have been times when Lumir rightfully felt ignored, but not for all of the occasions in her inventory of alleged slights. The bitterness that she built up over certain supposed snubs may have grown so vastly out of proportion that it spilled over into events that just didn’t play out the way she thought she remembered them. And, as with Fabienne’s new realizations about herself, the same becomes true for Lumir.

With these insights, one might naturally think that they ought to open the door for all kinds of schmaltzy reconciliations and a bevy of Hallmark moments. But do they? Isn’t it possible that self-importance might cut both ways? And how much impact might that have as mother and daughter approach one another with new understandings of themselves and their feelings toward the other? Well, that remains to be seen, especially now that each must grow comfortable with their own revised versions of “the truth.”

To casual observers, rocky scenarios like this may prompt some to scratch their heads and wonder how they could have come about. Those who value harmonious family relations may find these kinds of situations completely unnecessary, circumstances manufactured out of needless drama blown all out of proportion. But, for those whose vocations incorporate drama as an integral element – like actresses and screenwriters – is it any surprise that this quality of their working lives might spill over into the personal side of life? In fact, as many movies, books and plays have illustrated through the years, real-life experiences (including those of a domestic nature) frequently feed the imagination of their creators. So, realistically speaking, why should Fabienne and Lumir be any different?

This is not to suggest that mother and daughter necessarily birthed their difficulties purely for career reasons, but their personal experiences probably didn’t hurt in helping them hone their craft. Their passion for their work and their resolute conviction in their abilities as artists undoubtedly helped draw them to circumstances capable of aiding them develop professionally. And, upon recognizing this, it’s entirely possible that they came to believe in what this could do for them, notions that subsequently manifested as experiences that fueled their art – and lives. However, as this film illustrates, such situations come with their share of difficulties once materialized. They may give us what we need in one sense, but they may also be fraught with other qualities that make life difficult in many other ways. That’s an assessment to which I’m sure Fabienne and Lumir can attest. If we’re cavalier, derelict or unconcerned in our handling of these situations, we can wreak tremendous havoc on ourselves and those around us. That practice may make for good drama – and effective fodder for writers and actors – but it can also create all manner of problems outside of this context.

While out for a night on the town in Paris, actress Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve, second from left, foreground) is joined by her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche, left, foreground), son-in-law, Hank (Ethan Hawke, second from right, foreground), and granddaughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier, right, foreground), in “The Truth” (“le Verità”). Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

For Fabienne, that can be a problem, given her often-capricious, frequently oblivious behavior. At the same time, it can also be an issue for Lumir in light of her fallible memory. Both of these matters create problems for individuals who aren’t as diligent as they should be, not only for themselves, but also for those around them. Conditions like these may make for good drama but not good relationships.

All is not lost, though, because we can institute corrective measures (even if we don’t necessarily recognize those solutions as such). Given the long-smoldering discord between mother and daughter, it’s a safe bet that they may finally be ready to reconcile, and that becomes apparent through some of the measures they unwittingly implement to break the stalemate. Fabienne, for example, takes a movie role that gives her insight into Lumir’s feelings, providing an understanding of her daughter’s emotions that she never had before. Likewise, Lumir engages in conversations with those who point out the fallibility of her recollections, making her aware of false memories that she had been holding onto erroneously for decades. In both cases, they may not initially realize the significance of these measures, but, when their underlying intent becomes apparent, their importance becomes apparent.

This, of course, spotlights the value of redemption. Indeed, it’s never too late to make amends, but, as the clock begins to run out, the urgency behind this may get turned up a few notches. It’s something we can implement whenever we want, provided we’re willing to do so. However, making that happen requires that we be honest and sincere with ourselves, that we’re willing to operate from a position of personal integrity. Without that, any efforts we undertake will likely produce only mixed results at best. Given the longstanding mistrust between Fabienne and Lumir, it may be easy to see why this is a quality that doesn’t come easy for either of them. But, if they hope to make things work, they had better decide whether or not they want to get serious about this. We can only hope the best for them.

Hopes for a happy reunion get tested when actress Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve, second from right) welcomes her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche, second from left), son-in-law, Hank (Ethan Hawke, left), and granddaughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier, right), in the new domestic comedy-drama, “The Truth” (“le Verità”). Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first foray into filmmaking outside of his native Japan tells a tale in some ways similar to, and in other ways quite different from, his previous projects. The narrative here recalls Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” (1978) as an adult mother and daughter come to terms with their past in determining what kind of future they would like to forge. Deneuve gives a command performance, award-worthy for sure, and the script is full of ample, laugh-out-loud wit. The pacing in the final act could use some shoring up, but this otherwise-delightful, often-touching offering is worth the time. “The Truth” has primarily been playing at film festivals, but it will receive a general release in late March.

Getting at “the truth” may prove to be a trickier proposition than meets the eye. Because we each hold our own view of events, our perspectives may be tinged by feelings that affect the beliefs that create those perceptions and recollections. This, in turn, can open the door for subjectivity and differing interpretations to enter the picture, elements that can become stepping stones to drama and conflict. Sorting out matters when they reach this point can become increasingly problematic, to be sure, but nothing is beyond resolution if we remember what it is we’re seeking in the first place – and take the necessary steps to bring that into being.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Of Expectations and Obsessions

We all have expectations about how life is supposed to unfold. In fact, we may feel so confident about them that we even take them for granted. But what happens when they don’t materialize as anticipated? That can easily make us uncomfortable, perhaps even unnerved, especially when there are high emotional stakes involved. And, when that process moves forward seemingly unchecked, we may even grow obsessive about these unmet expectations. So it is for a grieving widower when he comes up against what may (or may not) be happening with his deceased spouse in the edgy dark comedy, “To Dust,” available on DVD and video on demand (web site, trailer).

When Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) loses his wife, Rivkah (Leanne Michelle Watson), to cancer at an early age, he’s devastated. Not only has he lost his beloved, but he’s also been left to raise two young sons, Noam (Leo Heller) and Moishe (Ziv Zaifman), as a single father. However, before long, those are not his only concerns; shortly after Rivkah’s burial, he begins having vivid and disturbing dreams about her transition from the world of flesh to the world of spirit, the process by which she turns “to dust.” He subsequently grows obsessed about the process of her body’s decomposition as worrisome thoughts cross his mind – How long is it supposed to take? Is her body’s breakdown progressing as it should in terms of timing and procedure? And, above all, will it end her suffering and lead to a proper transition to the life hereafter?

Those close to Shmuel grow concerned that he’s being overly morbid about all this, that he’s even running the risk of exceeding the stringent timeline his religion allows for grieving. To cope, he consults spiritual leaders (Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer) for guidance, but their answers don’t suit his needs. So, in an effort to get past this preoccupation, Shmuel concludes that he needs to better understand how the decomposition process works, a decision that starts him down a very slippery slope.

Worried that his deceased wife will transition from the world of flesh to the world of spirit on schedule, Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) becomes obsessed with understanding how the process works in the creepy but sublime dark comedy, “To Dust.” Photo courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment.

Shmuel first consults an undertaker (Joseph Siprut), who rudely dismisses the cantor once he figures out that he’s not in the market for a casket or burial services. Frustrated, Shmuel then takes an even more radical step by seeking the advice of a man of science, a potentially blasphemous move that could easily get him expelled from his religion if discovered. Nevertheless, Shmuel needs answers, and he hopes to get them from Albert (Matthew Broderick), an oft-befuddled community college biology professor.

Shmuel shows up unannounced at Albert’s college, whereupon he unassumingly walks into his classroom and asks for help. Needless to say, Albert is perplexed at the mysterious visitor’s arrival, not having a clue who Shmuel is, why he’s there or what possessed the stranger to pick him for help. But, to one unaccustomed in the ways of science, Shmuel doesn’t see any distinction among its practitioners, so, in his mind, anyone who has any knowledge of the subject will do.

However, given that Shmuel’s inquiry carries as many theological considerations as it does scientific, Albert is convinced he can’t help him (not that he really wants to anyway). Nevertheless, Shmuel is insistent, so Albert begrudgingly sits down and begins explaining how the decomposition process works, the first step in what will become a long and complicated dark comedy of errors.

Put-upon community college biology professor Albert (Matthew Broderick) has an additional unexpected challenge to tackle when he’s approached with an unusual request from a Hasidic cantor in “To Dust.” Photo courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment.

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that this unusual collaboration sparks a strange and comically macabre series of events involving an experiment to chart the decomposition rate of (of all things) a pig, a trip to a “human decomposition farm” and regular visits to a tranquil lakeside location where the cantor believes he’s able to commune with Rivkah’s spirit. Meanwhile, as all this unfolds, others look upon Shmuel and worry, including his sons, who have become convinced he’s in cahoots with a dybbuk; his spiritual leaders, who are concerned that the cantor has become incapable of carrying out his work; and his mother, Faigy (Janet Sarno), who quietly frets that he’s not getting on with his life to find a new wife, showing little interest in the prospective mate (Isabelle Phillips) she’s arranged for him to meet. And, through all this, there’s Albert, who’s increasingly put upon by Shmuel’s requests, including questionably ethical (and potentially illegal) incidents that could threaten his livelihood, career and personal freedom.

However, as this strange odyssey plays out, events unfold that provide surprisingly revelatory insights for all concerned, especially Shmuel. Truly meaningful developments emerge from unlikely events and individuals, providing answers where previously there were none: An impromptu road trip to Tennessee from their home in upstate New York proves remarkably telling, while a chance encounter with a security guard (Natalie Carter) ends up speaking volumes of once-hidden wisdom. And, in the process, the outwardly comical turns out to be richly sublime. Indeed, for those who doubt that the Lord works in mysterious ways, these episodes turn such skepticism on its head. But, then, as long as the unanswered questions finally receive responses, does it really matter where they come from or whether they follow prescribed expectations? After the kind of journey that Shmuel and Albert experience together, they might well say that it doesn’t matter a damn.

An experiment with, of all things, a pig leads to events spinning out of control for Shmuel, a Hasidic cantor (Géza Röhrig, right), and Albert, a community college biology professor (Matthew Broderick, left), in their quest to study human decomposition rates in the dark comedy, “To Dust.” Photo courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment.

Shmuel’s loss is indeed sad. It’s patently obvious how much he loved Rivkah, and his worries about the well-being of her soul after her passing only make that loss that much more painful. He clearly needs to find closure so that he can make peace with her death and get on with his life. But, with relentlessly obsessive thoughts racing through his head and no readily available answers, he’s being tortured by his own mind, a process that carries on and seems to have no resolution. What is he to do?

To a great degree, Shmuel is locked into these circumstances because of his beliefs, particularly those of his religion, many of which follow rigidly prescribed dictates, established limitations that may – or may not – ultimately suit one’s needs or expectations. And, regardless of whether or not he genuinely believes in their validity, he’s expected to adhere to them to maintain his standing with his fellowship. But is that truly feasible?

This is not meant to denigrate one’s religion, but how can one be expected to observe such precepts if one has doubts about them? That’s the conundrum Shmuel quietly faces, especially when he begins having thoughts and dreams that prompt him to question what he’s supposed to accept without reservation. If he needs answers that his faith cannot provide, he must pursue other means to get them, and. if he cannot get past his grief in line within a stipulated timetable, then he must be allowed to give himself permission to move through that process at the pace that best suits him. And this must all happen even if it means risking his acceptance by his religious community.

At the same time, though, despite Shmuel’s doubts and his determination to get answers in his own way, he still clings to many of the established beliefs he has long embraced, hoping that they will somehow pan out. It’s as if he’s trying to dissect the mechanics behind these intangible notions in order to better understand them, despite prohibitions against doing so by the means he employs. He genuinely seems to want to believe in the fulfillment of the expectations he’s long cherished without question, even if their unfolding does not proceed according to what he has been taught to believe is supposed to happen.

Moishe (Ziv Zaifman, left) and Noam (Leo Heller, right), the young sons of a Hasidic cantor raising them as a single father, worry that their dad may be possessed by a dybbuk when he becomes obsessed with the after-death experience of his late wife in “To Dust.” Photo courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment.

Unfortunately, when faced with such seemingly conflicting circumstances, the result can be maddening, and that can lead to a perilously difficult outcome – obsession. Much of Shmuel’s behavior would seem to fit that pattern, one that grows progressively more consuming over time and that causes the concern expressed by his family and peers. And, once this sets in, it can lock one into an even more restrictive set of limiting beliefs, making escape increasingly difficult.

Several factors contribute to this. In part, Shmuel seems to lack the ability to recognize that a desired aspiration has been materialized in principle, even if its manifestation doesn’t match the form that was anticipated. If Shmuel were to examine his circumstances realistically, he would discover that the breakdown of Rivkah’s corpse is indeed following its natural course, fulfilling the ultimate expectation, even if it’s not necessarily occurring in line with postulated projections. If he were to see this for what it is, he might be able to rest more easily.

Part of the reason why Shmuel may not be able to see this has to do with the role that doubt and fear can play in this. These factors can easily undermine our perceptions, largely because they can contradict, and subsequently interfere with, the recognition of fulfilled expectations. Since Shmuel’s thoughts are riddled with doubts and fears, is it any wonder, then, that his expectations might not seemingly achieve fulfillment? And, given that, is it any surprise that this development only leads to more doubt and fear that drives the progression of his obsessive behavior? It really becomes a vicious circle.

There are ways out, though, if Shmuel is willing to consider them. Thinking outside the box can go a long way to overcoming this. This process can be further enhanced in additional ways, such as paying attention to the synchronicities we encounter, those meaningful “coincidences” that seem to be so perfectly tailored to our needs that they can’t realistically be taken as random chance. It can also be aided by listening to our intuition, that quiet inner voice that speaks to us seemingly out of the blue and often doesn’t make sense yet ultimately proves to be spot on. To his credit, Shmuel takes these considerations to heart during the course of his journey, such as when he notices his ability to commune with Rivkah during his visits to the tranquil lakeside locale. Such interactions offer guidance that proves useful, not only in helping him retool his outlook, but also in coming up with helpful resolutions to his issues.

Biology professor Albert (Matthew Broderick, left) and Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig, right) find themselves in an increasingly questionable spot when they begin an experiment to measure human decomposition rates in the hilariously dark comedy, “To Dust.” Photo courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment.

In the end, it’s possible to get past what holds us back, even in such matters as resolving profound grief. The process can be difficult enough to get through based just on the emotional devastation of what has happened, but it can become that much worse when we allow our minds to wander into territory that hinders resolution. But, by looking within and tapping into the beliefs driving all of this, we can at last achieve peace – and make it possible to move forward with our lives.

To be frank, some viewers may look upon “To Dust” as patently appalling or sacrilegious. Its dark humor, admittedly morose subject matter and lampooning of sacred principles might easily offend many. Indeed, there are many moments where viewers might find themselves laughing at things that they probably think they shouldn’t be chuckling about. But, in many ways, those elements are what makes this film work so effectively, especially when the humor is tinged with underlying insights that may not be apparent at first but that are quickly followed by a thoroughly pleasing aftertaste. This unlikely buddy flick grows increasingly hilarious with each passing episode, with Röhrig and Broderick serving up big, unexpected laughs that often prove deceptively profound and sweetly uplifting. This delicious little gem delivers more than what it superficially seems to offer, leaving viewers with good feelings, a warm glow, a tickled spirit and maybe even a new outlook on what comes after this life. For their efforts, screenwriters Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for their excellent, inspired script.

When we let our expectations get the better of us, they can eat us up more detrimentally than even the most aggressive microbes devouring a corpse. If they go unfulfilled, they can devastate us as they push us into obsessive behavior and frazzled states of mind. But we needn’t remain captives of our thoughts; we can break free and find peace of mind, provided we take the steps to do so – and as long as we take action before we turn to dust.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

In the Face of an Uncertain Future

If you were up against your own mortality, how would you spend your time? That question might be a little easier to answer for someone who’s somewhat on in years and who has the benefit of a wealth of life experience to draw upon. But, for someone lacking such insight, that decision might be a little more difficult to make; you know you want to get something in under your belt with the time that remains, but the choices may not be readily apparent, given that you’ve never been through them before and that you don’t know how long you have. Some of those choices might even appear questionable or objectionable to onlookers and those who care about you, options that could be roundly discouraged. Nevertheless, you move ahead anyway, as best you can and as best as you see fit, a journey that might prove to be a joyful ride, a rocky road or perhaps both, the kind of challenge faced by an adolescent living under such circumstances in the enigmatic new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth” (web site, trailer).

Australian teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) leads a somewhat challenged life. Many of her peers at a private school in suburban Sydney see her as offbeat and kinda geeky, a promising violin virtuoso who’s not exactly one of the hippest kids in her class. But there’s more to it than that; in a number of ways, she’s not quite as grown up as many of her classmates. She even possesses one of her baby teeth, a rather unusual condition for someone her age. However, if all that weren’t enough, Milla is undergoing treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, one that often leaves her drained, not to mention embarrassed by the side effects that accompany chemotherapy, such as hair loss.

Nevertheless, Milla strives to cope, wrestling with all of the awkwardness that comes with adolescence, her own particular challenges aside. And, as quickly becomes apparent, given her uncertain future and despite her social clumsiness, she’s not afraid of trying out new things as a means of finding her own way, no matter how successful she is at dealing with them. That’s perhaps best exemplified by the spontaneous relationship she strikes up with Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old small-time drug dealer and occasional user who takes a shine to 16-year-old Milla. In many ways, though, they seem a mismatched couple; given their age difference, Moses has more worldly experience than Milla, which periodically causes him to lose patience with her, even going so far as to ditch her when things become tiresome or he sees it as convenient. Such incidents can lead to expected heartache, as well as serious and potentially dangerous complications. But, despite this sometimes-shoddy treatment, Milla basks in whatever attention he provides, which makes her feel better, especially when the debilitating effects of her illness overwhelm her.

Needless to say, this relationship doesn’t sit well with Milla’s parents, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis), a former music prodigy-turned-stay-at-home mom. But, then, they should be careful about pointing fingers given their own questionable behavior. Anna is often strung out on all manner of prescription medicines (prescribed by her husband no less), while Henry is having a less-than-platonic relationship with his young, new, pregnant neighbor (Emily Barclay). Oh, and Henry and Anna have more than their share of emotional clashes, making any of their daughter’s conflicts with Moses look pale by comparison. However, given their awareness of Milla’s condition and a vague appreciation of the bad examples they set, mom and dad avoid hypocrisy by cutting her a great deal of slack and allowing her to have her fun, no matter how much they detest the guy she’s seeing.

Because cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) faces an uncertain future, she seeks to take in as much of life as possible, even pursuits of a questionable nature, during what time she has in the new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

As their on-again/off-again romance unfolds, Milla and Moses somehow manage to undergo a fair amount of personal growth, both as individuals and as a couple. Milla’s first love experience may not be perfect, and Moses may be far from the ideal mate, but they share an undeniable, if inexplicable bond. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, given their respective circumstances, neither of them probably expects to be around for long, so they grab at what life has to offer while they have the chance. It’s not as if they’re checking off items on a bucket list, but they seem eager to freely engage in whatever life experience strikes their fancy at the moment; after all, they may not have many opportunities to pursue such adventures. And, as they partake in these exploits, they aim to get the most out of them, no matter how unusual or unacceptable they might seem to others, particularly Henry and Anna.

In many regards, this scenario might sound heartbreaking, and, admittedly, there is a discernable undercurrent of sadness that runs through the story. But there are also joys to be had, such as the thrills of first love, exhilarating escapades and loads of laughs, many of a decidedly quirky nature. Their ups, downs and adventures remind us all of the rich panorama of experience life has to offer and the ultimately all-too-finite windows in which we have to enjoy it, opportunities that are considerably shorter for some of us than for others. For someone seeking to literally and figuratively shed her remaining baby teeth, such a quest may prove to be more urgent than many of us realize or can appreciate. Carpe diem, indeed.

First love takes an unexpected form for cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen, left) when she falls for Moses (Toby Wallace, right), a small-time drug dealer and occasional user seven years her senior, in director Shannon Murphy’s impressive debut feature, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

To an outside observer, many would probably look upon Milla’s circumstances and say that she got a raw deal. They might add that she’s fortunate to come from a contented middle class background, one that has provided her a comfortable home, seemingly adequate health care, and loving and supportive (if challenged) parents. But, then, they also might wonder why she’s potentially risking all the blessings she has by pursuing a seemingly hopeless relationship with a walking train wreck. Indeed, is it wise to jeopardize what she has going for her by hanging out with someone who’s steps away from rehab or a jail cell?

Considering how long Milla’s seemingly been a nerd and given the ticking clock she might be up against, is it any surprise that she wants to get in some thrills while she has the chance? In his own way, Moses makes that possible, and, if that’s what she wants, should anyone realistically deprive her of that? For what it’s worth, there may be valuable life lessons for her in such an involvement, questionable though it may be. So is it fair to deny her that just because it’s related to circumstances that others might find objectionable? Admittedly, this is a thorny question, but, for better or worse, this is what Milla believes she needs at this time in her life, and, for her part, she has successfully managed to draw these circumstances to her.

This is not to suggest that Milla wants to end up in the gutter, nor is that something to be condoned. After all, she still seems to want many of the things teenagers typically desire – shedding the naïveté of youth, finding ways to fit in (especially with the cool kids), attending her school formal and experiencing love (in all its forms) for the first time. She just seems to be following her own path on her way to discovering these things for herself. How can any of us derail her efforts at that?

Distressed parents Henry and Anna Finlay (from left, Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) worry about their teenage daughter’s health and questionable choice in boyfriends in the moving new comedy-drama, “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

Milla goes through many, many changes while on this odyssey. That’s to be expected in a “normal” adolescence, let alone one characterized by the singular issues she faces. But, then, such is the case during an age of personal discovery. Milla’s just being true to this stage of life. So, given what she’s going through, the best that anyone can do for her is to leave her be.

In making her way through these myriad changes, Milla comes up against a host of fears and limitations, all of which she handles in her own way, admittedly with varying degrees of success. Given what she’s up against, this can’t be easy at times. Considering her health challenges, the quiet disapproval of her parents and the typical angst teens generally face, it’s a lot to tackle and overcome. What’s most important, though, is that she makes the effort to birth a satisfying and fulfilling existence, something at which many of us often come up short.

Under these conditions, Milla’s efforts are to be applauded, not criticized. In fact, this scenario in many respects calls to mind the Biblical passage about he who is without sin casting the first stone. Henry and Anna’s disapproval of Milla’s behavior comes as somewhat ironic in light of their own questionable antics. Maybe those who are supposed to be providing guidance to the impressionable can indeed learn something from those whom they’re supposed to be guiding. This can lead to a variety of valuable new revelations for the mentors in such areas as tolerance and compassion. Such an insight becomes abundantly apparent, for example, during one scene in which Milla pleads with Henry to graciously set aside his prejudices and extend these qualities to Moses, something she’s more than willing to do in light of the fact that she can empathize with his situation in a way that her dad perhaps can’t. That sounds pretty grown up for someone who’s still on the verge of adulthood – and who has the wisdom to share her understanding with those who have already arrived there (and theoretically should know better).

Indeed, who says youth doesn’t know anything? When someone is faced with the prospect of having to fit a lifetime of experience into a potentially shorter time frame than most of us typically do, it can prompt one to grow up a lot faster than usual. Milla’s choices might not be the same as those we’d make, but she introduces us to possibilities that we would not ordinarily consider. It’s an example we could all learn from.

Music lessons help provide a sense of direction and purpose for cancer-stricken Aussie teenager Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen) in “Babyteeth.” Photo courtesy of Whitefalk Films.

“Babyteeth” is far from the typical teen health crisis picture, mainly because it doesn’t dwell on the protagonist’s illness. Instead of presenting a story about an adolescent wrestling with disease, the film tells the tale of a teenager struggling to grow up who just happens to be sick. By presenting Milla’s story from this perspective, director Shannon Murphy defies expectations as she attempts to depict a challenge common to many of us that just happens to have an additional component appended to it, an approach that strives to portray the struggle to carry on and that ultimately serves to heighten the film’s emotional impact. To be sure, Milla’s illness is always lurking in the background, but the picture is more about life (and what we do with it) than about how much time we spend undergoing medical procedures that may or may not prove successful.

With a tautly written script, a superb ensemble cast (including Mendelsohn and Davis in some of their best performances) and a more than ample supply of supremely quirky humor, this excellent debut feature from filmmaker Murphy ushers the audience through a minefield of emotions (especially in the film’s concluding sequence), leaving viewers moved – and drained – by picture’s end. Admittedly, it may seem like the picture meanders at times (and, in fact, it occasionally does), but it’s a film that leaves viewers wondering what’s going to happen and evoking emotions in line with that, yielding reactions that are legitimately earned and not manipulated. Think of this as a slightly off-the-wall, bittersweet and decidedly more dysfunctional version of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), with elements of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015) thrown in, and you have the idea. This is indeed an impressive offering from a promising new talent. Don’t miss it.

“Babyteeth” has primarily been playing at film festivals, and it will be screening at a few more. However, a general release appears to be in the offing sometime in the near future. Look for it at theaters and institutions that specialize in arthouse and independent cinema.

Many of us would no doubt like to live forever, even though most of us fully know that’s impossible. But, that aside, we nevertheless would at least like to have a long and fulfilling life, one that provides us a richness of experience and personal satisfaction. When it appears we might not get it, though, we must decide what to do with what’s available, no matter what the parameters of that opportunity might be. Under such circumstances, we could second-guess ourselves until the time runs out, which certainly doesn’t seem like a viable option. Or we could follow our hearts, having faith that they will lead us to what will serve us best. That’s often the case, and we should trust in that notion to obtain the fulfillment we seek – regardless of how much time we have left.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.