At the risk of stating the obvious, Babies is a film about human life at its most fundamental. At the age before language, the babies in the documentary distill what we bumptious adults consider to be complex human emotions into facial expressions, interactions, and sounds. With no narration and all focus on the babies, the film makes for a uniquely entertaining time.
Babies, conceived (ha!) by Alain Chabat and directed and co-produced by Thomas Balmes, is a documentary that follows four tykes through their first year of life. Ponijao lives with her family in Opuwo, Namibia; Mari in Tokyo; Bayar with his family in rural Mongolia; and Hattie with her parents in San Francisco.
While true that the 79-minute baby montage is more charming to someone who actually likes babies, there is enough visual stimulation and cultural exploration here for even the least reproductively inclined. Vast panoramas of Mongolian countryside sidle up to the meticulously stacked skyline of Tokyo. Ponijao tromps around with dogs and detritus and plays face-down in river water, while Mari engages in organized play and baby yoga.
The juxtaposition of different worlds is definitely there, although the film rejects any outright judgments. And Babies is better for holding back the temptation to analyze various approaches to childrearing. The film leaves us to determine for ourselves that babies can survive without the protective shield of Lysol and child-safe toys. In fact, as Bayar's experience proves, you can throw a live rooster into the mix and babies will come out unscathed.
When Bayar's brother pushes him out in a stroller, leaves him in the field, and trots back to the yurt for some alone time, I can sympathize. When Mari struggles with an exercise in spatial perception and repeatedly throws herself onto the floor, she brings back memories of writing college papers — weeping and gnashing teeth. And when Hattie attempts to flee a Mother Earth, kumbaya-esque sing-along, I want to cheer on her efforts to bust out of there. (She's a girl after my own heart.)
More important than the "awww" factor, Babies succeeds at bringing us back to basics, testifying to a thread of humanity that dances and stomps in Namibia, pitches a fit in Tokyo, fumbles through social interactions in Mongolia, and tumbles off the slide in San Francisco.
Opens Friday, May 7th