Monday, May 24, 2010


Mommy had a little baby.
There he is, fast asleep.
He's just a little plaything.
Why not wake him up?
Cute, cute little baby.
Little pee-pee, little toes.
Now he's comin' to me.
Crawl across the kitchen floor.

--Talking Heads, Stay Up Late

Babies is a Benetton ad come to life, an impeccably art-directed vision of a multicultural utopia. It was sweet enough to keep me entertained for a while, appealing to that baby love the Talking Heads were singing about, but the charm wears off before the end credits roll.

The concept couldn’t be simpler: The movie follows four babies from birth to age one, capturing highlights of their lives. There’s no narration, talking heads, or subtitles; just a series of intimate moments captured by a small crew that spent a long time with each family, enough that the babies took the camera for granted, though the grown-ups sometimes struggle to avoid looking into it.

The four live in very different cultures – Mari in ur-urban Tokyo, Hattie in beatific San Francisco, Bayar in a yurt on the Mongolian steppe, and Ponijao in a small village in the Namibian desert. The filmmakers like to stress the differences in child-rearing habits between cultures, lingering on the Mongolian nurse tying newborn Bayar into a tight swaddle or Ponijao’s mother teaching her toddler daughter how to balance a cup on her head while walking. But in the end, all four baby girls live in the same, Disney-esque world, a loving, laid-back place where the sun always shines but it’s never too hot and it never rains, where grown-ups are always kind and reasonable and kids deeply loved and well cared for.

Loosely structured montages in roughly chronological order highlight some of the basic stages of a baby’s development, from birth to learning to walk. The kids, all pretty adorable and relentlessly intense, make these highlights intermittently engaging or funny. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but I found Ponijao and Bayar particularly charismatic, their primal emotions impossible not to identify with.

There are lots of domesticated animals in this movie too. Every one – not just cats and dogs but cattle and goats and chickens too – are impressively tolerant of the babies, even when they’re being banged at, stepped on, or dragged across the floor by a toddler with a makeshift collar and leash.

Adults are often seen as headless collections of body parts or heard as disembodied voices, the way the babies presumably experience them. They’re mostly moms – men are barely visible in most of the segments, though Mari’s father seems to be almost as involved in her upbringing as her mother is.

The babies have a lot more similarities than differences, but it’s kind of interesting to see what other cultures consider appropriate behavior for toddlers and parents. Some of those differences read as shockingly risky in our own increasingly phobic culture: When Ponijao picked up stones and bones from the earth to gum them while her mother sat nearby without comment, the people behind me gasped.

The expansive Mongolian and Namibian settings provide some visual juice. The filmmakers often use majestic panoramics as transition shots, and the African scenery is so gorgeous that my eye sometimes wandered from the babies in the foreground to the soft colors in soft focus behind them. The mothers in Africa often function as scenery too, their soft chitchat and laughter providing a lulling soundtrack to the  beautiful sight of their dark brown faces, gold jewelry, and mud-daubed and decorated braids framed by the taupe earth in the background. The camera is particularly taken with Ponijao’s mother and another young mother, apparently a close friend or relative, whose slightly older child often plays with Ponijao while the two mothers sit and talk.

Babies is probably a good family film: At least half the adults in the theater where I saw it yesterday came with kids under the age of 10. But if you don’t come with a kid, you may find the concept a little too thin. At just 80 minutes, it felt too long to me by half.

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