Everyone loves looking at babies, but they're rarely the subject of a feature film. This we realize while watching the often enjoyable, if intellectually questionable documentary Babies from director Thomas Balmes. While the prospect of following four babies' first year on earth has a built-in "aww" factor, Balmes quickly treads into ethically and socially complex territory that he seems unable to navigate.
Balmes' film follows the guidelines of the respectable documentary aesthetic: no voiceover narration, no contextual subtitles, not even translations of the languages that are spoken by the young mothers in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the United States. Composed largely of long takes from stationary cameras, the result is a collection of compelling and intimate glimpses of infancy that, nevertheless, leave us wondering just what the point of the film is.
Babies is organized along its subjects' developmental progression: contrasting scenes of childbirth, then crying, crawling, walking, etc., as well as scenes that highlight their respective experiencing of their new world. The film's opening seems designed to thwart our sentimental expectations: We're in Namibia, and we watch two very young toddlers beat on a rock and play with an old plastic bottle before one of them begins wailing. There is little cuteness here: We just see two vulnerable baby humans in a harsh land. But there's something about the way the film begins in the cradle of humankind and how the children beat the ground with a rock and how we see a subsequent frontal belly shot of the Namibian mother in which she's portrayed as a fertility goddess, that lead to expectations the film doesn't fulfill. (Werner Herzog, on the other hand, would have made a meal of the children's rock and its accompanying toy, a plastic bottle.)
There's a lot of footage that is very suggestive of the different worlds of children and differing ideologies of childhood, but there's little evidence that the filmmaker wants to investigate those issues. We do notice some themes, though: While the African kids are left to play with rocks, bottles, dogs and their own genitals, and the Mongolian kids are left to the company (and torments) of older children, pets and herd animals, the Japanese and American kids are single children, obsessively doted upon by their parents. Thanks to the filmmaker's choice of a Bay Area granola-ish couple to represent the American experience, we're treated to scenes of baby yoga and songs in praise of the earth mother by urbanites who wouldn't dream of moving to a Namibian hut. While the Third World kids are exposed to nonlethal abuse by other children as their parents tend to chores, the San Francisco mother hands her (surely preliterate) baby a book called No Hitting! in response to a tantrum.
So the dice are loaded, yet we're somehow lulled into passive contemplation (although this film should be fun to see with a crowd). The filmmaker would surely maintain that it's the viewers' job to divine meaning, and that if we find ourselves thinking about the universality of human physical development versus the wildly different environments babies are born into, he's done his job. The problem is, we don't learn much that we didn't already know. And furthermore, the film settles for a reassuring we-are-the-world tone, while we know full well that Hattie from San Francisco and Mari from Tokyo have far more prosperous lives in front of them than Bayar of Mongolia and Panijao of Namibia.
Still, this is a movie about babies, so remember: All babies are cute. For what it's worth, the Mongolian kid totally steals the film.