I wish there was a whole Babies TV channel (analogous to the short-lived cable Puppy Channel of the late '90s). It would be so relaxing to flip away from the cable news chatter and reality competitions and watch unnarrated footage of small preverbal people chewing their own feet. Babies (Focus Features) is barely even a movie—it's more of a 79-minute YouTube video with high production values and the vaguest of ethnographic pretensions. But it scratches an itch film audiences may not have known they had—of course! the big screen needed more babies!—and sends you home with your brain pleasantly awash in a bath of oxytocin. I predict it will be, by documentary standards, a runaway hit.
Directed by Thomas Balmès from an original idea by producer Alain Chabat, Babies couldn't be simpler in concept or execution: The film follows four babies from birth till first steps, each growing up in a radically different cultural context. There's Mari, a baby girl in Tokyo; Ponijao, a girl in a rural village in Namibia; Bayarjargal, a boy in the steppes of Mongolia; and Hattie, a girl in San Francisco. Balmès' cameras filmed for a total of more than 400 hours, observing the infants as they nurse, sleep, play, torment cats, chew on rolls of toilet paper, and grow. Any adult conversation that's captured in the process is purely random background noise and appears unsubtitled on the screen. In interviews, Balmès has said that his original idea was to make a wildlife film about human babies, and Babies is at times reminiscent of a nature documentary, right down to the manipulative music soundtrack that works too hard to reinforce the already-sufficient cuteness on-screen.
The chubby bald subjects of Babies seem, by moments, to be enacting small parables about childhood and human behavior. As Bayarjargal is tormented by his older brother, who repeatedly whacks him in the face with a scarf, the younger boy simultaneously wails at the injustice and waits eagerly for the next whack, proving the truism that negative attention is better than none at all. Ponijao, who has nothing to play with but animal bones, dirt, rocks, and the bodies of her mother and siblings, gives Western parents a lesson in how to turn lemons into lemonade; without a single toy, book, or mommy-and-me enrichment class, she manages to develop on schedule (for whatever that concept is worth) and have a grand-old time doing it. The segments concentrating on Hattie, a relatively privileged only child, are the closest the movie comes to social commentary, but the satiric brush Balmès wields is both gentle and broad. As her father plays with her in bed, Hattie's mother reads a book called Becoming the Parent You Want To Be, a title that I doubtflies off the shelves in Mongolia. Later her mother takes her to a children's music class where the teacher drones, "The earth is our mo-other," as Hattie, understandably, makes a break for the door.
Of the four babies, the Mongolian Bayarjargal is perhaps the most ready for his close-up, with a wide face and droopy jowls that give him the look of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. His deadpan stare as his yurt is invaded by a rooster, or a goat wanders over to drink bathwater from his tub, is among the movie's best comic effects. And while Babies does elicit the occasional coo (for example, when Balmès' camera captures the elusive phenomenon of the newborn "sleep smile"), by far the more common response to the shorties' shenanigans is laughter. As every parent of a young child knows, babies are hilariously funny to watch, most of all when they have no idea they're being funny. This movie's high point may be a multi-part tantrum thrown by Mari, the Japanese baby, as she tries and fails to master a stacking toy. After each frustrated attempt to fit the pieces together, she literally rolls on the floor in despair, then sits up, tries again, fails, takes another wailing dive. Who knew small-motor-skills development could provide both high tragedy and comic gold?
Babies has inspired an interesting schism in the Slate offices: Our editor, David Plotz, has been obsessed with the film since catching an advance screening. When anyone at Slate professes a lack of interest in seeing it, David (a father of three) chalks their indifference up to their childless (and presumably therefore heartless) state. I wish I could find a way to access my pre-parental brain, to test how I would have experienced the movie without four years of daily exposure to cuteness. I don't think you need to have a baby to appreciate Babies, but you need to be open to the part of your animal self that lights up at all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. If you can watch all 17 seconds of the "surprised kitten" video on YouTube without even a twinge of longing to crush said kitten with love, skip Babies. If you find yourself clicking "replay" to watch the kitten again, pre-order your ticket now.
Slate V: The Critics on Iron Man 2, Babies, and Casino Jack
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