REVIEW: Babies Just Cute (and Brief) Enough to Enjoy
Babies! Who doesn't love babies? Babies who mistake their own feet for foreign objects; babies who ride through the town like pashas in their armored strollers; babies who do baby yoga all by their witty bitty selves. Babies make the world go around, and everybody should have at least one. But if you don't, and you don't want to feel left out of the nonstop fun, Thomas Balmès' winsome documentary Babies can kit you out with not just one but four virtual babies, all of them extremely cute and, best of all, amazingly low-maintenance.
Babies follows four infants in different parts of the world through their first year of life: Meet Bayarjargal, of Mongolia, whose hobbies include lying on a bed, wrapped adorably; Mari of Tokyo, whose contemplative curiosity about the family's long-hair cat suggests either superior intelligence or just garden-variety baby boredom; Hattie, of San Francisco, who's a speed demon in the jumpy-chair; and Ponijao of Namibia, who wins the prize for coolest, most unflappable baby -- flies land on her, a neighbor baby torments her in a squabble over a dirty plastic bottle, and still, she keeps on groovin'.
The movie's producer, Alain Chabat, explains in the film's press notes that he got the idea for Babies some 12 years ago. He originally pitched the film, he says, as "a wildlife film on human babies." The result is something close to that: A nearly wordless meditation, accented with whimsical music (by Bruno Coulais), Babies shows its diminutive stars lounging around, exercising their dimpled elbows, rolling over, crawling toward stuff, working their little jabber-jaws and, eventually, triumphing over gravity by standing upright, more or less. Meanwhile, other stuff happens: Ponijao happily puts her whole chubby fist into the mouth of a tame dog, who endures her shenanigans with supreme canine benevolence. Bayarjargal's older brother, a junior Damien if ever there was one, torments the family cat by tying a string to its neck and dragging it across the floor. (The cat survives, at least this time, but the occasion certainly calls for a mom intervention. Or maybe an exorcism.)
But the four babies featured here are lovely, really, and it's fun to watch their individual personalities emerge: Ponijao, for example, is admirably good-natured and self-sufficient. Part of that may be because while her mother clearly loves her and takes good care of her, the woman has a lot of other stuff to do, too: She uses a length of cloth to tie Ponijao to her back, where the infant dangles somewhat precariously as mom goes about her daily business. Contrast that with Hattie in San Francisco, who, during a visit to the pediatrician's office, is measured, scrutinized, discussed and charted. We hear her mother's anxious voice on the soundtrack: "I mean, it's a correlation, it's not a causal thing, right?" Meanwhile, Ponijao finds a dried bone in the dirt and proceeds to chew it happily. Yum!
The point of Babies, to the extent that it has one beyond allowing us to revel in unstoppable baby cuteness, is to underscore that infants everywhere are more similar than they are different, regardless of what country they're born and raised in. But the culture a baby is born into does, of course, affect how he or she will be raised, and Balmès (along with his editors, Craig McKay and Reynald Bertrand) is cannily attuned to those distinctions. I noted lots of meaningful cutting between San Francisco Hattie, whose every potential baby need is anticipated and met by her superconscientious parents, and Namibia Ponijao, who will probably never wear a flowered Petit Bateau pinafore and, believe it or not, is hardly likely to care. I also marveled at a sequence in which Bayarjargal's mother, having given birth not too long ago, hops on the back of a motorbike (the driver may be the baby's father) and zips away over some pretty rugged Mongolian terrain, holding her tightly bundled newborn in her arms.
Babies are fragile, of course, and they need our care and protection. But Babies reminds us that plenty of babies get by without having the Maclaren double-wide stroller with the highest possible safety rating, and that a lack of access to Baby Mozart or Dan Zanes is not tantamount to child abuse. In fact, Babies, which features only one U.S. bébé, may make you question our own nation's priorities on child rearing, particularly in certain class strata: When Hattie throws a mini-tantrum, her mother beams at her with love and holds up a book with the title "No Hitting." This is where you know you're watching a real-life documentary, because who could possibly make up stuff like that?
Of course, babies everywhere must learn about good manners, and about sharing. Over in Mongolia, Bayarjargal is startled when a goat appears at the window to drink the bath water he's sitting in. That ranks as one of the most excruciatingly adorable moments in Babies, which clocks in at a trim 79 minutes. Even 80 minutes of outrageous baby cuteness might have been one minute too many, but Babies hits it just right. After that, it's time to hand the babies off to their respective moms, turn on some disreputable R-rated movie with lots of nudity and bad language, and pour yourself a cocktail -- just because you can.