Having already collected a number of awards on the international film festival circuit, Australian dramedy Babyteeth is spearheading the return to local cinemas later this month. STACK caught up with director Shannon Murphy to chat about her acclaimed feature debut.

Aussie director Shannon Murphy lets out a long throaty laugh when STACK asks why she didn’t cast her actor hubby Daniel Wyllie as Henry in her feature debut Babyteeth, a heart-breaking tragicomedy about a cancer-stricken teenage girl who falls for a charming but drug-addicted youth, propelling her family into a messy emotional fallout.

Not that Ben Mendelsohn was a bad choice.

“You’re the second person to ask me that, because Ben asked me the same thing!” she reveals when we chat at the Zurich Film Festival where Babyteeth played in competition last year.

“Look, Ben and Dan are good friends. It’s tricky because I love working with Dan and we’ve worked together before and it’s great. But also, sometimes you don’t want to spend 24/7 with your spouse. Let’s be honest. Love him. It’s wonderful being married to an actor. I never thought I’d say that, but it works really well because they understand your hours, what you’re doing and what your needs are – and same hopefully with him.

Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis in Babyteeth

“But I think because this was my first film, it was important to make it with his support, and have him there to help me at home more than anything else,” says Murphy, whose impressive list of TV credits includes homegrown dramas Love Child and Offspring.

Based on Rita Kalnejais’ stage play of the same name, Babyteeth stars Eliza Scanlen as the 15-year-old protagonist, Milla, with Mendelsohn and Essie Davis (The Babadook) portraying her parents, who watch helplessly as their daughter falls for Toby Wallace’s chaotic Moses.

Murphy thanks her hubby for suggesting Wallace as Milla’s smalltime drug dealer boyfriend. “Dan was in the TV show Romper Stomper with Toby and he kept saying, ‘This is your guy!’ And when I auditioned Toby, it was a no brainer. He’s so electric and so present. He’s a dream actor.”

Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace in Babyteeth

A veteran of Home and Away, Scanlen had already starred with Amy Adams in HBO’s Sharp Objects when she came onto Murphy’s radar.

“Eliza auditioned several times for me because with the lead of your first feature, you really want to make the right decision,” she says of the young actress who, after Babyteeth, would go on to appear in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. “We knew she was going to take off, so we had to snap her up pretty quick.”

A condition was that Scanlen would have to shave off her hair. “When you’re doing a raw version of a story with the camerawork and the lighting, you cannot make that work with a bald cap. You can’t do it. Not on our budget,” Murphy explains. “So it was amazing that Eliza felt very strongly that, in order to authentically play that character, it was essential to go through that experience. She was completely onboard to represent this girl who is at the precipice of feeling more alive than she’s ever felt, yet abruptly facing her own mortality.”

Painfully aware that Babyteeth would follow in the “terminal teen” genre already paved out by The Fault in Our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Murphy’s film joyously explores how good it is to still be alive and how far we will go for love.

“I’m not drawn to films that are overly sentimental or manipulative or cheesy,” she says.

“And I’m not saying that’s what those films are, but there is a different quality, I guess, with how people choose to address children who have illness or children who are dying. I’m always about finding the honesty and celebrating how messy life is really.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat those things. I want people to feel emotion in my work, but I want it to be something that they have also been able to intellectualise without holding their hand the whole way. I want the experience to go deeper rather than just spoon-feed.”

Babyteeth is in cinemas (excluding metropolitan Melbourne) on July 23.