Movie review: 'Babies' is about babies being babies

Ed Symkus

This sweet, charming, kind-of-fluffy documentary opens with a couple of Namibian toddlers playing in the dirt, banging rocks, fighting, crying and drooling. Then it flashes back to “a few months earlier,” when one of them was born.

It’s an unnecessary introduction to “Babies.” It’s probably there for its cuteness factor, but the film really should have started right at birth.

When it finally does get back there, its four protagonists – Ponijao from Namibia, Bayarjargal from Mongolia, Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from San Francisco – make great entrances. Ponijao is first seen nursing, Bayarjargal is tightly tied into a blanket and driven home on a motorcycle, Mari is already taking attention away from the family cat, and Hattie is lying with Mom, while another equally confused cat looks on.

Covering the first 18 months in the lives of these tiny people – from birth to standing up and walking around – French filmmaker Thomas Balmes does the unexpected. Instead of giving us a babies’-eye view of the world, he’s made a movie that has the world looking at them. It’s done on a small scale, with a camera acting as a passive observer. These are simply babies being babies, whether they’re staring with inquisitive expressions on their faces, trying their damndest to stay awake while sitting up, or interacting with all sorts of animals.

There are terrific and very funny moments where the animals get just as much screen time. One baby plays with a cat. A different cat plays with a different baby. A couple of good-natured family dogs calmly take great amounts of innocent abuse. The oddest and funniest of these scenes involve a thirsty goat and one heck of a big chicken.

Some have accused the film of being nothing more than a collection of home movies. But that’s ridiculous. Very rarely do home movies look or prompt emotional reactions like this. And a home movie of one’s kids has yet to teach us much about its subjects.

Here we learn that babies spend a lot of time yawning, at least when they’re not being frustrated by certain toys or captivated by a big roll of paper (which, one tot hints, makes a dandy snack).

Though many camera shots are up tight with just the babies, parents definitely play a part in the film. A dad is seen multitasking, talking on a phone while shaking a rattle above his child. A mom outdoes that by breastfeeding two babies at once. A bedroom scene shows one dad happily playing with his baby, while Mom is in the background, calmly reading a copy of “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.” The film casually cuts back and forth between the four babies and the cultures around them, from the comfortable home in San Francisco to the fly-filled, mostly outdoor living in Namibia. Mari takes part in a dance-movement class with her mom, while Ponijao plays in a shallow stream with friends.

There are crying scenes, crawling scenes, very early instances of talking. Yet there’s no narrator telling us what’s happening. In fact, there are very few words. When adults do speak, most of it is in a foreign language, and there are no subtitles. Some of the English words are drowned out by bubbly soundtrack music.

No one knows how these kids will turn out, but through the lenses of “Babies “they all seem to be getting a pretty good start.

BABIES (PG for cultural and maternal nudity.)  Directed by Thomas Balmes with Ponijao, Bayarjargal, Mari, Hattie. 3 stars out of 4.