Babyteeth is about a girl with cancer. Her name is Milla. She’s 16 years old and she lives in an Australian suburb. On Tuesday, she starts chemo, but today, she brings home a lost puppy. Well, actually, it’s a 23-year-old boy who she met on a train platform, but he’s only slightly more housebroken. His only purpose in life is drugs, but she sees something kind in him. Maybe it’s just her teenage rebellion. He stays for dinner, and her parents try to make nice. He’s clearly a bad influence, but their girl has cancer, and they would love it if she experienced a little romance before it’s too late.

For her feature debut, director Shannon Murphy has assembled a sterling cast of actors to bring this unorthodox drama to life. Eliza Scanlen, last seen as Beth in Little Women, plays Milla, living her final days as if no one is watching. She dances, snarls at the camera, and radiates both the beauty and loneliness of a person unburdened by expectations. It’s a rare portrait of adolescence. As her flawed, struggling parents—who the film spends more time with than you expect—Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis create passive characters that earn our sympathy. They are committed to letting Milla run her own life, bad choices and all. Meanwhile, Toby Wallace brings a raw yet gentle energy to the role of Moses, who may be hanging out with Milla just to get a chance to raid her medicine cabinet. On the off chance he is really into her, or maybe it’s just his earnest smile, we can’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, Murphy largely wastes the efforts of her talented cast by failing to commit to a tone. At times, Babyteeth feels like a twee drama, like the ghastly Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Each section of the film is given a cute chapter heading. “Nausea.” “Fuck this.” “It didn’t feel like a love story that day.” Adding a bit of confection to a heavy film isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it needs to be intrinsic to the story. This cheekiness isn’t represented anywhere else in Babyteeth, so it reads as an unearned stylistic flourish, lessening our engagement and distancing us from the characters.

It’s sadly consistent with other directorial touches: The swooning score tells us what to feel at every moment, rarely allowing viewers the chance to locate their own emotions. The camerawork by cinematographer Andrew Commis has a habit of framing its characters off to the side, leaving our eyes to scan the huge swaths of empty space. There is logic to the choice, indicating the inability of these family members to connect, but the film ultimately fails to reconcile its ideas with how viewers will actually experience them. 

A simple refocusing of the story could have solved some of these problems. In a film with such a jumbled perspective, each time we are given space to simply look directly into Scanlen’s eyes, we understand everything. Her eyes would be a gift to any actor, but her control over them shows immense craft. They open impossibly wide when she wants your attention, and narrow into slivers when you’ve displeased her. They can tell the whole story themselves, and it’s the undoing of the film that it looks away from them so often. 

Babyteeth is now available on VOD.