Young people’s lives being cut off just as they begin to bloom is a consistent staple of teen-centric entertainment. But the past decade or so has seen a flood of sedative variations on the theme. The Fault In Our Stars, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, Five Feet Apart, Everything, Everything: All of these films feature a teenage girl with a terminal and/or rare illness who graciously finds the time to teach those around her how to really live while she’s in the midst of dying. And like all clichés, particularly the melodramatic ones, the cancer-teen romance is begging to be caricatured. Australian director Shannon Murphy is here to oblige with Babyteeth, a fresh take on the trope delivered in unique fashion. Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a sheltered fifteen-year-old cancer patient who falls immediately and hard for Moses (Toby Wallace), the scuzzy twenty-three-year-old drifter who literally runs into her on a train platform in the opening scene. It’s obvious from the start that Moses is trouble, and not just because he kind of looks like Soundcloud rapper. He’s also an one-man illegal pharmacy who’s caught stealing pills from Milla’s psychiatrist dad Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) more than once before Henry invites him to move in.
You read that correctly; after several attempts to keep him and Milla apart, Henry and his wife Anna (Essie Davis) invite Moses to come live with the family, as a comfort for their daughter in the last weeks for her life. Sure, Moses is a drug dealer. But so is Henry, in his own way. It’s throughout that where both Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalbejais view the grey areas of this unconventional arrangement both cuttingly and compassionately; their film is less cynical than Cory Finely’s Thoroughbreds but it’s in the same polished black-comedy wheelhouse. This means skewering the absurdity and hypocrisy of Henry and Anna’s bourgeois morality while leaving room for their good intentions, as flawed as those may be. A similar ambivalence is applied to Moses, whose motivations for befriending Milla are mixed at best but do betray some pity, if not actual love, for this fragile girl. In playing along with Milla’s fantasy of a great romance in her dying days, Anna, Henry, and Moses create a convincing replica of a happy family that’s both comically demented and oddly sweet.
Babyteeth is told in self-contained chapters, each adorned with a pithy title like “Nausea,” “Romance, Pt. 1,” among others. But although the film bends the boundaries of linear storytelling, establishing a freewheeling, jazzy rhythm of its own, this plot can only come to one conclusion. And as that ending approaches, the tone shifts from dark comedy to sentimental drama, adding a maudlin aftertaste to an otherwise appealingly bitter brew. One thing that remains consistent throughout is Murphy and cinematographer Andrew Commis’ striking use of color, a very contemporary palette anchored by shades of pinkish beige and overcast turquoise that varies in saturation depending on the mood of a scene. Murphy also shows a talent for seamlessly combing naturalistic performances from her actors with the heightened stylization of the film as a whole, all of which mark her as a noticeable, singular voice. It’s just too bad that she couldn’t fully resist making the thing she was subverting. Sensitive, lived-in, and packed with authentic performances, Babyteeth hits its peaks as a wickedly perverse and, at times, intensely moving variation on familiar coming-of-age themes.
Babyteeth is available on VOD
From around 1990 to 1998, the Cuban government operated a deep-cover spy ring whose agents infiltrated paramilitary Cuban exile groups in Florida by posing as anti-Castro defectors. This piece of information is something of a spoiler for Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network, as the movie doesn’t reveal that its main characters are spies until an hour in. But there, the spoiler-phobic reader should cut a critic some slack: This is a true story that’s mainly interesting because it’s about double agents and Cuban espionage. It’s only when Wasp Network actually turns to matters of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that it begins to fall apart. The first hour is a tightly wound piece of directorial surveillance in Assayas’ trademark style, fluidly tracking the obscure motives and movements of the characters. The second hour is a lot less compelling. The first of the “defectors” to be introduced is René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez), an American-born pilot who steals a plane and flies to Florida in 1990, leaving behind his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and their daughter, Irma, in Havana. Before long, René has started a new life in Miami with the help of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and found a job as a flying instructor with the intention of having Olga and Irma eventually join him in the United States. It doesn’t take long for him to get scouted out by José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a former CIA agent who runs a refugee aid organization called Brothers To The Rescue.
The next is Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a hotshot major in the Cuban air force whose flashy defection at Guantánamo Bay makes him a celebrity in the Cuban-American community and even lands him a book deal. Like René, Juan Pablo doesn’t claim to be an anti-Castro zealot, and some knowledge of what’s actually going on only benefits the first of Wasp Network, in which they are “reluctantly” seduced into varying organizations. It’s in these matters of double-dealing that Assayas, who adapted the script from Fernando Morasi’s nonfiction book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, seems most at home with the material. Across his various excursions into the thriller genre, the onetime film critic has focused on the trafficking of corporate, artistic, and geopolitical ambiguities. Yet with this one, the film’s ambivalence and the forces in the opposite figures of René and Juan Pablo, Wasp Network attempts to portray a conflict in which the sincere actors share objectives with mercenary sociopaths. As to which is which, the matter throughout remains painfully plain.
As promising as this premise might be, its chances of a dramatic conclusion dissipate once Wasp Network expands even more, beginning with the introduction of the spymaster Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal). The underlying problem is that none of the action-and-suspense-oriented parts of the story involve either of the main characters, which leads René and Juan Pablo to spend increasing amounts of time offscreen. Assayas makes an intriguing bid for balance by occasionally cutting back to Olga. She’s oblivious to the true nature of her husband’s abrupt “defection” but has taken (with considerable irony) to telling their daughter that René is away on a mission for the government. In a sense, the character is in her own mini-drama of façades, compromised goals, and government machinery to parallel René’s spycraft. Cruz works hard to make something of her relatively fleshed-out role, which stands in stark contrast to Wasp Network‘s one-note characterization of Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas), the abused divorcée romanced by Juan Pablo. This mix of domestic and international relations, marriage and mission, ends up suffering from the film’s own internal compromise; it relies on (fine) set pieces to establish the larger stakes of the story, and skips over what appear to be key moments of character development. Broad and bogged down by choppy structuring, Wasp Network ultimately feels like a mixed TV pilot that’s only then followed by a sizzle reel of the rest of the season.
Wasp Network is available to stream on Netflix