The Greatest Family Recovery Film Ever Made

“Babyteeth” is a harm reduction film about flawed people recovering together.

Posted Dec 26, 2020

“Babyteeth” is a 2019 Australian film (released in the US in 2020, available on Hulu) that outlines what recovery really means, and how a family attains it. Directed by Shannon Murphy from a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais based on her play, it centers around the terminal illness of an early-teen girl. Yet it is inspiring to the audience, and inspires each of its characters to be a better, less addicted, person. Life leaps out of this film.

As reviewed in 2020 by Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com, the film’s central characters—a mother, a father, an ill daughter and her somewhat older street dealer boyfriend each:

face the unexpected with grace, and sometimes with the opposite of grace. They act out, throw tantrums, push each other away. They fumble, make mistakes, apologize badly, [and] self-medicate (or over medicate).

Yes, they are flawed people, and all four at some point consume substances badly, making themselves ill and repelling other people. None of them ever “recovers”—defined as quitting their substance use officially and totally. But all of them improve to the utmost of their capacities, loving one another and becoming better people.

The main characters are a controlling father, a psychiatrist who shuts off his feelings and manages his wife with prescription drugs; a frail wife who has given up her career as a musician and manages her self-destructive emotions with medications; an ill daughter striving to experience life while she can including sometimes making bad choices (including drugs and alcohol) and her street dealer boyfriend whose life revolves around ripping people off so that he can use drugs.

None of the main characters (and supporting characters, including a ditzy young pregnant neighbor*# and an imperious music instructor, an ex-lover of the mother who teaches the daughter violin+) is cruel or malicious++. These are fundamentally well-meaning humans struggling to deal with their imperfections and both self-imposed and life-imposed limitations. By the end of the film, each of them has grown, making key sacrifices and fulfilling themselves more as a result. The father has allowed himself to be vulnerable, the mother to try to deal with her emotions sans chemical assistance, the daughter to have the best life experiences her time on earth permits her, and her unpromising boyfriend to reach out and express love**.

In becoming more positive towards one another, and themselves, the characters each demonstrate the secondary role drugs and alcohol play in life fulfillment. That is, their recoveries are built around loving and helping one another, and not on whether or not they use. In this way the film makes clear that recovery is a love- and life-based, not a substance-based, phenomenon. None of the characters sets out to stop using drugs: the mother comes the closest, but not doesn’t entirely go there. In standard recovery terms, none achieves “sobriety” — really, none wants to. They simply want to love one another and to be loved, and to live the richest life that they can, with one another and as individuals being all that they can be.

”Babyteeth” — by inspiring us all as we enter a new year facing an imperfect, sometimes overwhelming, world — prompts us to wonder whether art, and living meaningfully, outdo our best clinical efforts to cope with addiction.

We are left to surmise how the film’s auteurs — the director and writer — have come to such knowledge, a wisdom that surpasses the understanding of the key experts in the field.

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(Thanks to Paul Bergen for alerting me to this film and suggesting this blogpost.)

*Funniest scene: The neighbor administering hair gel therapy to the psychiatrist 

#Best public health message: The psychiatrist telling the neighbor not to smoke, no matter what she’s seen on the internet about smoking during pregnancy 

+Most nurturing character, despite his propensity to bombast and impatience

++The cruelest scene—when the daughter’s classmate borrows her wig to try on as a fashion statement—isn’t malicious, but privileged and unconscious 

**Most touching scene: The boyfriend cradling the mother after she attacks him