There are people, I’ve been told, who troll the Internet looking for cute things: kittens, baby chicks, puppies. People like that will no doubt adore director Thomas Balmes’s Babies.
For the rest of us, the experience lies somewhere between watching a compelling documentary and looking at a new mom’s pages of Facebook photos.
The title pretty much says it all: Balmes followed four babies from different parts of the planet—Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco—from birth to first steps. There is no dialogue, no narration. Mostly, he keeps the camera trained closely on the babies, like little silent film stars.
One thing I learned from watching Babies is this: if you watch babies closely—I mean really watch them—they’ll tell you everything you need to know about their needs. Frustrated, hungry, happy, curious—all these emotions play across the faces of our little squeezable heroes. And it’s captivating to watch them work things out—to learn to learn.
Still, I couldn’t help but to feel like Balmes squandered an opportunity here. If anything, his style of direction is toopassive, too neutral. (He’s the anti-Michael Moore.) Nothing is explicitly said about the differences among the cultures. We have to make these inferences on our own. And he doesn’t give us quite enough to work with.
In Namibia, the phrase, “it takes a village” is certainly recalled. The chubby little girl is seemingly is raised by a community of mothers, children, watchful animals, even other babies. The frame is filled with the lazy, crowded rhythms of the day.
In Mongolia, the baby, which was swaddled hilariously tightly for its scooter ride (!) home from the hospital, is often seen crawling around his own—at one point, among goats; later, in a vast field. This would be alarming, but what really is there to fear? There are no cars, no crime, no electrical cords. This little guy is free to explore his sheltered world.
The San Francisco baby is a bit of a cliché—mom and dad are New Age types, who take the baby to yoga class and are armed with every possible baby book and new-fangled gadget. In a moment that could’ve been scripted by Woody Allen, the little girl hits her mother, as babies do. Immediately, the mother reaches over and pulls a book off the bookshelf. Its title? Don’t Hit.
In Tokyo, we see the baby on public transportation, and at a wall-length window, looking out over a neon-lit city. At times, the dad seems a little distracted (in one scene, he talks on a cell phone while absently shaking a toy in the baby’s face). But these are clearly good parents. If anything, they’re like a slightly less coddling versions of the San Francisco parents—the little girl is taken to a “Mommy and Me” type class, there’s a visit to the zoo, and lots of developmental toys. (The baby's frustrated attempt to put a stick through a wooden donut toy is one of the film's most inspired sequences.)
Balmes’s point seems to be, there’s no right way to raise a baby. Also? Babies are really cute. Not quite sure that’s enough to build a film on.