Babies (review)

Planet Earth’s Home Movie

It’s high time the tiniest people got a movie of their own. Because even movies about babies are never really about babies but about the grownups who want to have babies or don’t want to be saddled with babies, or about small children who don’t like having their places of privilege usurped by even smaller children, or about doctors who think they’re gods because they give women babies through modern science, and so on. But what do the babies think of this new life thing that is thrust upon them without so much as a by-your-leave?
Here, in Babies, from French documentarian Thomas Balmes, we get the world from the perspective of babies, or as close as we’re likely to get in that preverbal period of human life. Balmes “auditioned” pregnant mothers around the globe, seeking four who would be willing to share the first year or so of the lives of their impending infants. The genders of the babies were not known at this point, but it’s sort of nicely unironic that Balmes ended up with three girls — Ponijao, in rural Namibia; Mari, in bustling Tokyo; and Hattie, in San Francisco — and only one boy: Bayarjargal, in nomadic Mongolia. Because there are slightly more girl babies born every year than boy babies.

The mothers’ faces are almost absent, except when they occasionally bob into the babies’ views; dads rarely appear. Okay, that’s not quite a baby’s perspective, who always have a grownup face popping into their own to babble or coo or laugh or talk. But Balmes’ camera mostly stays on the babies’ faces as they open up to the world around them; we see arms holding them, hands helping them, and so on, but not much else. The voices they hear of the adults around them remain untranslated: babies don’t get any help understanding what they’re hearing, and neither do we. (There is, refreshingly, no narration to get in the way of what we can plainly see is occurring onscreen.) The babies simply soak in the ambiance, learning and growing, and so do we.

Ah, and here’s the “terrible” secret of Babies: it’s not really about babies, either. It’s about the universalities of human life across cultures that unite us, and about the differences that make us, well, different, too. (It’s like a home movie for the human race.) Some babies in some places get gentle scolding about not hitting other people, while others interact almost violently with their siblings. Some babies in some places live in almost antiseptic environments, while others are happily allowed to eat dirt just to see what it tastes like. Some babies live in places where they’re handled like fragile eggs, while others ride home from the hospital on motorcycles — helmetless! And they all manage to end their first years healthy and happy.

What’s universal? Love. Tolerance (much of it exuding from pet cats and dogs who patiently allow the infants to pull their ears, yank their fur, and drag them around). Joy. Oh, but this is a joyful film, a wonderfully charming portrait of what may be the most basic thing about being human: discovering that you’re human in the first place.

The babies themselves? Adorable. Simply delightful to spend 90 minutes with. Life-affirming: you may not want to run right out and acquire one yourself, but surely you’ll find a lovely reminder of what a treasure it is to see the world through new eyes.

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