From the outset, it seems to be a bold-faced cash-in culled from little investment. In Babies, a French-produced doc which got a surprisingly wide release this past weekend, we have long takes of the cutest things possible: four babies from all around the globe. Having just begun life, they now begin their interactions with the world. Their little steps begin a grand exploration and are filled with fun and wonder, some pain and disappointment. The film objectively captures these natural phenomena.
Babies shares much with a genre using little resources: the nature documentary. In this tradition, cinematographers wait for the appearance of something awesome, then do their best to capture it in perfect pitch. The content comes cheap – it’s all in the positioning and knowing where to go. Filmmaker Thomas Balmes shows that infants, those strange yet familiar creatures, warrant such documentation. His film captures this irony with quiet wonder. Babies is one of the most human fly-on-the-wall docs I’ve ever come across.
If the idea wasn’t so profound in action, we’d be bored by it. These babies – from Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco – are more similar than different. Their expressions of joy are as vivid as their sadness or grouchiness. Ponijao, from Namibia, has a smile that bursts into the screen. She seems to be the happiest baby, though Bayar, from Mongolia, shows similar joy when not teased by her older brother. Likewise, the mothers speak to the babies in similar tones, whether in a north Asia hut or on an African plain. The project seemed aimed to find this universality, while Balmes looks out for cultural differences in the background. Ponijao and Bayar explore the ground, improvised toys, all the bugs and dirt – the images make us question American hyper-clean anxieties. Meanwhile Mari, from Tokyo, and the American Hattie roll about their playrooms and are led through playgroup exercises. Though one in the same, the babies have different personalities: as Ponijao beams with laughter and Bayar finds a new adventure in the mud, Mari shows baby-angst about a toy while and Hattie sits in passive observance. As Michael Apted’s Up series showed us, a man or woman is born more than they are grown. The audience gets its cute fix and snapshots of life.
The specifics of each culture make for a curious backdrop. Ponijao’s mother chats as she rears, still somehow busying her hands; Bayar’s father guts an animal while his son feels through the thickness of grass. These babies show there’s nothing new under all the sun’s reaches. The adage is old, but it’s nice to get a fresh reminder like this film.
Babies is released in the states by Focus Features.