My section editor had scorned the notion of reviewing Babies, assuming it was “a talking baby movie.” And it totally is, but not in that unctuous Look Who’s Talking / Baby Geniuses saccharine babylicious kinda way, nor in the hack “kids say the darnedest things in snarky grownup voices in order to sell financial services” steez. In fact, there’s precious little talking in this documentary, seeing as how Babies stars and follows four largely pre-verbal babies from ages 0-12 months. During this inaugural year, we learn only about 3 percent of what they do, but still, we learn a lot — for one thing, that silence speaks volumes in relatively unadorned scenes of infant behavior; tricking babies up (we’re lookin’ at you, pageant moms) is not only unnecessary, but distracts from what’s awesomely universal about them; they’re Us, before all the fancy shit happens. Us at animal level and what a fascinating critter we are. Babies keeps the Cutening to a minimum (it isn’t altogether missing though, with some tasteful but kinda twee soundtrack bits — why, o why is footage of children so often punctuated by a marimba?) and it respects intelligence — that of the audience, and more crucially, of the teensy performers themselves.
And man oh man, those performers are adorable as hell. Unfortunately, the advance materials pre-characterize the babies as “the sassy one” “the lonely one” etc., which is a pisser; seems a little early in the game to assign them roles, whereas each short but wallop-packing scene illustrates who these individuals are, where they are, and who they’re beginning to choose to be. Plus, that oversimplification undermines the universal, again. In Babies, the species-wide process of child development has never seemed as hard-earned or freaking hilarious. But, fine, so long as we’re at it, here’s my synopsis of each estrellito:
Hattie’s a feisty American blonde whose San Francisco-dwelling parents are doting, seemingly anger free, eco-conscious readers of parenting books. My favorite scene of Hattie shows her trying desperately to flee a New Agey baby-development yoga happening. “The Earth is our mo-o-ther …” Hattie ain’t having it.
Ponjiao is a Namibian genius. Seriously. Her patient and capable mom manages to nurture effortlessly without hovering, and the kid just attacks every situation with both radiant joy and tremendous innate smarts. A scene of her toddling while carrying an aluminum can perfectly balanced on her head had me in tears, and I have no idea why. That’s the power of performance art. Also: She’s a language-acquisition machine.
Mari lives with her hipster parents in Tokyo, and unlike Hattie, seems to enjoy those sing-along baby-class things. Dislikes: tigers, gorillas, when the blocks just refuse to do what she wants despite her enviable eye-hand coordination.
Bayar, a Mongolian tribesperson of tremendous charisma, has to contend with a bullying older (2-year-old) brother, a hardworking and occasionally irritable mom, and spends a lot of time being completely unfazed by livestock, mostly goats. Bayar’s cool with goats, and the goats seem to really like Bayar, too. Who can blame them? His triumphant announcement of the word “Mama” and a shot of him standing heroically silhouetted against the austere majesty of the Mongolian landscape are among the most arresting moments in the film.
Babies is impregnated (rimshot) with unspoken social commentary: It illustrates the differences between child-rearing methodologies across the globe based on parental work and resources; deftly points out the seeming similarity of all middle or upper-middle class baby-accoutrement trends; and champions the right (and the ability!) of kids in hardscrabble situations to nonetheless thrive and triumph. As in two other terrific documentaries, March of the Penguins and Winged Migration, Babies raises our consciousness of the natural world; but this time, baby, it’s us. •