Can a coffee table book make for a good movie experience? Sort of.
French filmmaker Thomas Balmès follows a quartet of babies in four different countries from birth to their first footsteps. That's right — it's all babies, all the time. Nothing like truth in advertising. Yes, it helps if you've an affinity for wee ones, but as far as nature documentaries go, the gorgeously composed Babies is surprisingly engaging for most of its 80 minutes. Think of it as the ultimate YouTube video: entertaining but it'll never compete with Shark Week.
Presented like an old-school nature flick, Balmès bounces between the grasslands of Namibia, the high-rises of Tokyo, the steppes of Mongolia, and the gentrified neighborhoods of San Francisco without narration, analysis or interview, letting his HD images tease out the similarities and differences of first- and third-world tots. There's African Ponijao, who seems to live in a world without men. Raised by an extended matriarchy, the bold little tyke is a quick study, alert to the world and eager to develop. Bayarjargal, on the other hand, steals the spotlight while suffering countless indignities in his rural Mongolian home. The child of herders, he's harassed by a rooster, prodded by a curious older brother, and in constant competition with all manner of farm animals. Pay careful attention as helicopter parents in the audience wince and gasp at the long list of domestic health code violations these two babes thrive under.
On the privileged side of the planet, baby Mari and precious Hattie indulge all the comforts neurotic modern living has to offer. Play groups, rooms full of toys, and studiously interactive parents offer them an overload of experiences. Living in first-world splendor, it's hard to decide whether the girls' passivity is gender-based or the result of never-ending stimuli. Despite their overscheduled days, however, it's the everyday experiences that offer the film's most intriguing moments: Hattie strikes Mom in the face as she reads a book entitled No Hitting, or Mari's hilarious fuck-this-shit fit over a toy she becomes frustrated with.
Babies doesn't offer up anything particularly revelatory about its subjects. The kids nurse, play, bathe and explore their surroundings in ways you'd predict. There are lots of cute close-ups, breathtaking landscapes and Putumayo-like music, but few surprises. Still, it's the purity of the kids' development and their unfailing curiosity that ultimately pulls you in. And predictably, Balmès regularly indulges in cultural and economic juxtapositions to approximate a point. While Mari, Hattie and Bayarjargal play with the family cat, Ponijao tries to relate to the flies that swarm around his feet. Hattie peels a banana, while Bayar "helps" his mother wash entrails. Whether the film is contrasting watering holes to inflatable pools, or sleeping with goats to visiting the zoo, it never gets much deeper than "see how much babies are alike no matter where they live?"
Times passes, the kids become increasingly aware and then they walk. End of movie. Oh, and there are lots of shots of Ponijao and his posse suckling at their mamas' boobs. Which is the only explanation for the MPAA's ridiculous PG rating "for cultural and maternal nudity throughout." One can only assume "cultural nudity" translates into "nekkid black woman."
As a fellow critic pointed out, "How much you'll like Babies depends on how much you like babies." Nevertheless, even the most infantiphobic audience member can appreciate Hattie's mad dash for the exit as the touchy-feely parents in her San Francisco playgroup start chanting their love of Mother Earth. One can't help but imagine that she'll grow up to be the type who'd hate Babies.
Showing at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].