Early on in this charming and unexpectedly dark tale of young love and questionable choices, a single look seals the fate of the naive schoolgirl protagonist when she glimpses the haunted eyes of the young ruffian who bumped into her on the subway platform. Carrying a violin case, she’s meek and troubled in a pressed uniform, and he’s tattooed and rangy like a young wolf, but they both seem to sense that the other has something they want. It’s a tenuous setup for a romance, but it’s enough to spark what will prove to be a beautiful and bizarre disaster that alters both their lives.

Part of the fun of Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is in watching its characters make terrible decisions. The first lapse in judgment occurs when 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) asks the shifty boy she just met, Moses (Toby Wallace), to give her a haircut. His own hair looks like the result of a run-in with angry clippers in a dark room, and he ends up giving her a version of that. Freshly shorn, she brings him home for dinner with her family, where her parents stare in horror and fascination at their unexpected guest.

No one plays the straight man here, as the parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) seem just as impulsive and reckless as their daughter: they’re introduced in a sex scene in his therapy office where he seems more interested in his sandwich than in climbing onto the desk with his panting wife. That first dinner goes predictably awry when Moses reveals that he’s 26, and the parents forbid Milla from seeing him again. They’re strangely unmoved by the hack job on her hair, and it soon becomes clear why: she’s dying of cancer, and has to shave her head anyways. An array of wigs ensues.

Babyteeth benefits from setting itself apart from other young-adult cancer dramas like The Fault in Our Stars. No one in this story is noble or innocent, and no one behaves predictably. Milla’s timidity hides a short-fused rebelliousness, and she is masterful at manipulating her parents’ various weaknesses. It becomes clear that all the principle characters are medicated or drugged in one way or another, each of them sliding along a scale of dysfunction which they think no one else can see.

The fine-grained texture of events feels like that of a short story brimming with charm and strange flourishes, such as the confusion caused by the neighbor’s misbehaving dog having the same name as the father. Scenes unfold in brief chapters with headings like “Romance (Part 1)” and “What the Dead Said to Milla,” as the score roams widely between the classical music that Milla plays with her mother and the synthy electronica that draws Milla into a booze-fueled rumpus with Moses at an underground drug party.

Both Wallace and Scanlen seem destined for bigger roles thanks to their chemistry and the spirit they put into their performances. She channels the headstrong intelligence of her Little Women co-star, Florence Pugh, and he has the swagger and charm of a young Leonardo DiCaprio with an added edge of menace. Together, they’re an improbable but compelling pair, Bonnie and Clyde facing down the end that’s coming. Milla may be dying, but she’s determined to live what’s left of her life feeling absolutely everything.

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