IFFR 2024 review: Milk Teeth (Sophia Bösch)

Milk Teeth is definitely a film with commercial potential, and Bösch proves she can direct a film, but hopefully for a follow-up she colours outside the lines a bit more.”

Paranoia towards outsiders in a dystopian world: it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and Sophia Bösch’s confident debut Milk Teeth, world premiering in Rotterdam in the Big Screen Competition, doesn’t break new ground. Good world building and a strong cast ensure that Bösch’s film engages until its final frame, but familiarity with the genre makes the story predictable from the moment its protagonist finds a strange young girl in the big, bad woods. Milk Teeth is definitely a film with commercial potential, and Bösch proves she can direct a film, but hopefully for a follow-up she colours outside the lines a bit more.

A community in an undefined vast German forest, survivors of an undefined event that has rendered the world (possibly) empty. Skalde (Mathilde Bundschuh) lives with her mother (Susanne Wolff), an ‘outsider’ who has only been allowed in the tight-knight group of people because of her marriage with a local. Her heritage makes Skalde an outsider as well, but she finds herself in the good graces of the community’s leader (Ulrich Matthes), who rules the village with steely eyes and ditto determination. When Skalde returns from a hunt for the perpetrator of a number of livestock thefts she finds a young girl in her kitchen. Skalde drops Meisis (Viola Hinz) off in the woods, but later returns to take the girl into her home. It doesn’t take long for the secret to be out, and the village elders show up on Skalde’s doorstep to take the girl, who they suspect is connected to the disappearing livestock. Skalde manages to convince them Meisis is not the witch from the tales they tell each other, through a plan involving the film’s title, but suspicion and naked hatred raise their heads when the daughter of one of the villagers disappears. When even Skalde starts to doubt the girl’s story, she has to make a decision: bet on a stranger or fall in line with the community’s codes.

Milk Teeth is an adaptation of Helene Bukowski’s 2021 novel, and tackles themes like alienation through isolation, fear of the other, and the human desire to belong. The premise offers possibilities for an original take, but Bösch’s strongest moments come when she examines the dysfunctional relationship between Skalde and her mother Edith, a relationship that is marked by bitterness and resentment, which intensifies when Meisis comes into their midst. Outside their household most characters are mere sketches without much depth, the exception being the village elder’s daughter who shows romantic interest in Skalde when she is not plastered.

Bundschuh and the always reliable Wolff excel in the roles of daughter and mother, and the young Hinz is convincing and well-cast as the possible bogeyman, her grim facial expressions keeping her true nature in suspense for the longest time. Cinematographer Aleksandra Medianikova has a field day with the lush forest greens around the village, and that environment, with its rustling leaves and breaking branches, is also a sound designer’s bread and butter. The story might connect all too familiar dots, but Bösch guides Milk Teeth with a steady hand, and at just over 90 minutes finds the perfect runtime to tell her dark and lean fairy tale. The film’s final confrontation lacks a punch, which means Milk Teeth peters out, but what came before it is entertaining enough to look forward to what Bösch can do with a more adventurous screenplay.