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Eliza Scanlen Is a Rising Star Whose Characters Keep Getting Sick

The 21-year-old Australian actress played sickly characters in ‘Sharp Objects’ and ‘Little Women’; now, in ‘Babyteeth,’ she’s playing a terminal young adult. But while the roles all have one bizarre thing in common, they also showcase Scanlen’s vast range.

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It makes sense to write something about Eliza Scanlen in 2020. The Australian actress is a rising star with serious talent—someone who introduced herself to American audiences by going toe to toe with Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson in HBO’s 2018 miniseries Sharp Objects. If we’re sticking to sports analogies—something that is contractually obligated when working at The Ringer—you could say that watching Scanlen act right now is like seeing Jayson Tatum cook on a rookie contract. But what’s most peculiar about Scanlen’s latest role—in Shannon Murphy’s feature film debut, Babyteeth—is perhaps best summarized by my colleague Andrew Gruttadaro’s initial reaction on Slack: “ELIZA SCANLEN IS SICK AGAIN?!”

The through line in Scanlen’s early filmography is that, at some point, her character is going to be bedridden. In Sharp Objects, she played a teenager who was being repeatedly severely poisoned by her mother in a case of munchausen by proxy; in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, she plays Beth, the purest soul of the March sisters who is doomed to die from scarlet fever; in Babyteeth, she’s a teenager with some type of cancer (the details of the illness are never fully explained) trying to make the most out of life who falls in love with a 20-something drug dealer. It’s like a casting director looks at a script, sees a role that requires an actress to sweat in a bed and/or look frail, and shouts, “Get me Scanlen on the line!”

On the surface, it might seem like Scanlen is being typecast for certain kinds of roles and embracing it—like Tom Hardy playing characters who obscure their face or Matthew Rhys portraying someone who is very sad. But the strangest part might be that this has all been a happy (er, chronic?) coincidence: Sicknesses aside, the roles themselves couldn’t be further apart, highlighting not just the actress’s versatile strengths but the breadth of her body of work.

It would be disorienting to go from watching Sharp Objects, where Scanlen’s Amma Crellin is—major spoiler alert—revealed to be a murderous psychopath responsible for a spate of grisly killings in a small Missouri town, to Little Women, a film that elicits a ton of pathos from the crushing inevitability of sweet Beth’s sickness and how it affects the March family. The character of Amma is an excellent showcase for Scanlen’s range thanks to her chameleonic presence in the miniseries. At home with her icy mother Adora (Clarkson), Amma plays the part of a prim child, getting dolled up and feigning innocence to the horrors surrounding her family and the town. It’s only when Amma’s rollerskating around with her friends, or privately confronting her half-sister Camille (Adams), that she reveals glimmers of her real self: a malicious person capable of murder.

It’s a testament to Scanlen’s work in Sharp Objects—which Adams herself admitted blew her away—that anyone who didn’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name would be shocked by the revelation that Amma was the killer all along. Scanlen gives you just enough of Amma’s adolescent vulnerability—again, she is being poisoned by her mom—that you ignore the warning signs and empathize with the character. Of course, not knowing Amma was responsible makes the very end of the series, where Camille finds a bunch of human teeth as flooring in her half-sister’s creepy-looking dollhouse, all the more terrifying and rewarding. But I suppose something should have clicked in my brain when Amma, at the peak of her poison-induced illness, looked less like a sympathetic figure and more of an extra from Midsommar:

HBO

Weirdly enough, teeth do play a symbolic role in Babyteeth. (If you’re keeping score at home, Eliza Scanlen will apparently sign onto your project if (a) she gets to be sick, and (b) there’s some teeth involved.) Scanlen’s terminally ill Milla still has one of her baby teeth, and when it eventually falls out at the end of the film, it is part of an eventful moment for a teenager who’s trying to live as much as possible with the little time she has left. If Sharp Objects saw Scanlen play Chaotic Evil and Little Women had her as Lawful Good, Babyteeth puts the actress somewhere in the middle. (A Chaotic Neutral, perhaps?) In the opening scene of the film, Milla appears to contemplate suicide on a train platform before she has a spontaneous run-in with Moses (Toby Wallace), a freewheeling drug dealer with a rat tail and a smattering of tattoos. (She gets a nosebleed, and his first instinct is to take off his shirt to mop up the blood; you can see how that might create a spark.)

While it’s initially unclear whether Moses sees Milla as a friend, a romantic interest, or someone he can use to score some drugs—her dad is a psychiatrist, and there’s plenty of prescriptions in their household—her baseline attraction to him is easier to understand. Milla isn’t allowed to live every day like it’s her last, but in Moses she finds a person who embodies living without fear of consequences. And though Babyteeth flirts with a lot of romantic clichés, both Wallace and Scanlen bring nuance to their characters and give weight to their illnesses and insecurities. Moses’s core of decency is in conflict with his own troubles with addiction and his estrangement from his mother and little brother; Milla can’t help but lash out at him, her parents, and classmates for things beyond any of their control.

Milla has a bit of Amma Crellin’s ferocity sprinkled in with Beth March’s fragility and resolve, while allowing Scanlen to use her native Aussie accent and, yes, get quite sick at various points in the film. (Scanlen shaved her head for the role.) But Scanlen’s bizarre and fortuitous string of sickly roles must eventually come to an end. I will regret putting this on record if she has a new movie coming out in, like, 2021 and the first shot of the trailer is her emerging from a room in crutches, but I’m pretty sure Scanlen’s future isn’t as a character actress always in dire need of Tylenol. (As far as I know, her upcoming role in the Netflix film The Devil All the Time doesn’t involve a stint at the ICU.)

While an indie like Babyteeth isn’t as high profile as working alongside Adams and Clarkson in Sharp Objects or having a spot in Gerwig’s ridiculously stacked Little Women cast, the film further cements Scanlen as the kind of actress in which it feels like a matter of when, not if, she’s mopping up at awards season(s). Like her Little Women costars Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Florence Pugh, Scanlen is part of a new generation of talented young actors whose performances belie maturity and depth beyond their years. (Or, in the case of Chalamet’s own kind of typecasting, the ability to portray a charming and sensitive fuccboi.)

Scanlen’s IMDb page may not be as filled out and varied as some of her peers, but it should only be a matter of time before she starts catching up with them. After the terrific and sickly trifecta of Sharp Objects, Little Women, and Babyteeth, the sky’s the limit. One can only presume Scanlen’s career advancement won’t always require sending her characters to the hospital.