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The Independent Critic

Ponijao, Hattie, Bayar and Mari
Thomas Balmes
Rated PG
79 Mins.
Focus Features

 "Babies" Review 
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Babies poop. Babies pee. Babies sleep. Babies laugh. Babies cry. Babies cry a lot. Babies breastfeed unless they can't. Fortunately, babies grow up to not be babies.

Do you like babies? Really, really, really, really, really like babies?

A lot?

Then you will enjoy Babies, a work of what French director Thomas Balmes calls non-fiction rather than a documentary, a film that follows the first year of life for four babies from around the world from birth to birthday (or slightly beyond).

Hattie is from San Francisco, born into a family of free-spirited pseudo-hippies who read books about parenting and attend a variety of supportive/social groups about parenting while Hattie mostly rebels and runs for the door, at least once she's able.

Ponijao, whom I'd have sworn throughout the entire film was a little boy, is actually a little girl born into a large family in the African nation of Namibia. Ponijao is easily the most easygoing of the bunch, the youngest of nine siblings residing with her parents in a dirt hut surrounded by what could best be described as your stereotypical "village" that it takes to raise a child.

Mari returns to the action to a developed community, this time Tokyo, Japan, where she resides with her mother, father and a rather demon child of an older brother who does nothing to refute the idea that Japanese culture is male-dominated.

Finally, there is Bayar, whose living circumstances are arguably the most remote. Bayar lives with his parents, siblings and farm animals on an isolated Mongolian farm, though it should be noted that the housing itself actually appears to be more structurally sound than that found in Namibia.

While Balmes does a nice job of bringing to the forefront the cultural differences into which these babies are born, the impact of these differences is never even remotely explored as Balmes seems to be aiming a touch lower for the "baby life is universal" theme that borders on a Mr. Obvious approach to the film.

Sure, the babies themselves are adorable, but there's really only so many ways to show "adorable" throughout the first year of life and did we really need a documentary, sorry "nonfiction," to tell us that babydom is universal regardless of circumstances?

No, we didn't.

What would have been interesting, perhaps, would have been to have truly explored the cultural differences and their impact on growing up and parenting. These differences are certainly hinted at, as Balmes seems enamored with Ponijao and her constantly breastfeeding, bordering on stunt breastfeeding, mother.

Actually, what Balmes seems most obsessed with, beyond breastfeeding, is baby penises and, I'll confess, by film's end I found it all just a bit disturbing given the ease with which theatrical releases can end up online. What may be, and I stress "may," intended as an innocent project that celebrates the world of babies could easily be subjected to ill intent by what can be a rather sordid internet given the occasionally graphic nature of Balmes' imagery. Strangely, it only occurs with the boys with the exception of one scene involving Ponijao's discovery that her brother is, um, different.

In subtle ways, Balmes also seems to be making the point that one can have all the civilization in the world but that doesn't necessarily add up to better parenting. Among these four babies, the obviously destitute Namibian mother is clearly the most skilled parent. However, this likely has as much to do with her having had eight other children before Ponijao's birth.

Those of you who've seen American Teen, a recent documentary that followed a group of Warsaw, Indiana high school seniors through their final year of high school, may notice some similarities between that film and Babies. With American Teen, director Nanette Burstein swore up and down that the filming was naturally manifested and that scenes unfolded naturally.

Most critics went "Hogwash!"

The same will be true here, as multiple scenes unfold in which it feels like Hattie, Mari, Ponijao and/or Bayar are being coached from the side, a feeling that is occasionally disturbing given Mari's repeated victimizations at the hands of a mean-spirited big brother and the various predicaments that Bayar seems to find himself in at the hands of a mischievous older brother. At times, you almost want to scream out "Put down the camera and go help the baby," but I suppose one simply has to trust that no babies were truly harmed over the course of the film.

There are scenes, as well, that unfold quite beautifully and the film itself is quite beautifully shot in each of its four locations.

Each child, it seems, has a moment of pure and utter bliss in the film...a moment in which it becomes abundantly clear exactly what Balmes is going for even if he never quite gets there.

Mari, for example, becomes both frustrated by and determined to solve the puzzle of children's toy. Hattie becomes resolute when learning how to peel her own banana, while Ponijao's interactions with his siblings are scenes of classic childhood that easily elicit the most smiles in the film. Finally, Bayar's interactions with the animals that surround him are simply astounding, mostly because the animals more than once seem to have more of an instinct for parenting than some of the parents in this film.

That's not to say that there is really much of a parental presence in the film, as Balmes opted to shoot the film without a voice-over narrative and, for the most part, with only the babies onscreen. When the parents are onscreen, there are no subtitles that will help you understand the parent/child interactions in three out of the four scenes. Instead, Balmes rests the entire film squarely on the shoulders of these babies. Occasionally, the approach works. More often than not, it doesn't.

An interesting and, my gut says, well intended experiment in cinema, Babies will likely appeal to a niche' audience of parents-to-be, hyper-sentimentalists and people who just plain love babies. We had them in the film's preview screening and, indeed, they truly enjoyed the film.

For most people, however, Babies isn't quite worthy of a trip to the local multiplex or independent cinema to watch what amounts to a collection of home movies from around the world.

A little cute and a little disturbing. Hmmmm. Actually, that does sum up Babies and babies quite nicely.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic