Babies -- Film Review



A nature film about humans, "Babies" is devoid of political agenda, philosophizing or, for that matter, commentary of any kind.

Visiting with four babies during the first two years of their lives, the documentary tracks their physical development, the blossoming of personality and the ways their cultures socialize them. As a portrait of children who are wanted and loved, it's intimate and often delightful. But even these adorable quartet's antics grow less fascinating as the film proceeds; as with other people's kids in general, there's a saturation point. Although the discerning film has more to offer than a high cuteness quotient, the arc from nursing to babbling to first halting steps is not the stuff of gripping drama.

Opening on Mother's Day weekend, "Babies" will provide welcome counterprogramming for those whose maternal instincts outweigh their interest in "Iron Man 2" and who have been enticed by Focus Features' social networking campaign. In the long term, after a healthy theatrical delivery, the DVD market will prove a nurturing habitat.

Working from producer Alain Chabat's simple idea, French documentarian Thomas Balmes chose four women about to give birth: two living close to nature and already experienced at motherhood and two from industrialized countries and having their first children. In supporting roles are supportive dads, whose involvement in day-to-day childrearing varies according to culture. Within their societies, each family is relatively well-off.

Whether the setting is a tribal village (Namibia), a grassy plain (Mongolia) or mommy-and-me classes (Japan and the U.S.), the babies start off gaping and gurgling like visiting otherworldly creatures. Three of them live with loving cats that would make Hemingway proud, and the Namibian baby, Ponijao, shares open-mouthed kisses with a patient yellow dog. She and her mother steal the show with the straightforward force of their bond and their sheer personality.

Just about any family in high-rise Tokyo or big-city America would look wanting compared to the neurosis-free rhythms of the Namibian and Mongolian clans (a raging case of sibling rivalry in the yurt notwithstanding). It's the difference between the open sky and the collective squall at a crowded Tokyo child-care center. The contrast is especially sharp when considering the gingerly and seemingly doctrinaire approach of the U.S. baby's parents. Ponijao plays with a bone in the dirt and drinks out of a stream. In Mongolia, Bayarjargal sits among his family's cattle. In San Francisco, Hattie's mother chants "The Earth Is Our Mother" and reads parenting books, and her father runs a lint-roller over her onesie.

The absence of voice-over narration suits the preverbal "stars" and turns the viewer into an active observer, sorting out relationships and re-examining assumptions. Working alone most of the time with a single HD camera and a tripod, Balmes shot with supreme selectiveness, making the most of his limited hours with the children. Bruno Coulais' music buoys the bright mood, and editors Craig McKay and Reynald Bertrand cut with energy and precision. Still, three-quarters of an hour in, at about the time the foursome are learning to crawl, the film begins to feel repetitive. Things pick up with the sheer primal beauty of Japanese baby Mari's temper tantrum.

Hardwired as we are to respond to infants, it's difficult not to be drawn in to the innate cuteness. The filmmaker's emotional connection to his subjects is clear, and even when "Babies" loses steam, it casts the human story in a fresh light.

Opens: Friday, May 7 (Focus Features)
Production: A Chez Wam/StudioCanal co-production with the participation of Canal Plus
Director/adapted by: Thomas Balmes
Original idea: Alain Chabat
Executive producers: TBC Prods., Chez Wam
Producers: Alain Chabat, Amandine Billot, Christine Rouxel
Music: Bruno Coulais
Editors: Craig McKay, Reynald Bertrand
Rated PG, 79 minutes