It's the opening night feature at Hot Docs, the film that's had buzz for months and might just stop the rotation of the Earth when it hits screens on Mother's Day weekend and baby-fiend squeals burst forth. Babies is a smorgasbord, an extravaganza, a hootenanny of baby moments in a 79-minute package. For many, a review is irrelevant. The tyke-filled trailer was enough with its giggle-worthy moments, sure to please moms and baby fans alike with its subject matter. But for those not instantly charmed by cherubic faces and drooling, Babies can easily become a long and occasionally tedious journey.
French filmmaker Thomas Balmes follows the first year of life for four babies. There's Hattie in San Francisco, a blondie girl born to eco-conscious, hands-on parents, Bayarjargal (Bayar) in Mongolia, the second son of a family living in a yurt surrounded by fields, Mari in Tokyo, a little girl and only child to a metropolitan couple, and Ponijao in Namibia, a daughter with eight older brothers and sisters, part of the Himba tribe. That, right there, is more information than you'll ever get out of the film itself. Balmes chooses to simply introduce the baby's names and locations, and then lets the film unfold silently, occasionally boosted by a score from Bruno Coulais.
Tracking birth through first steps, Babies succeeds at capturing some pretty excellent moments of baby brilliance. Bayar is the victim of some sassy sibling rivalry that leaves him out in the field; it's hard not to laugh when Hattie waddles over to the door and shakes it in an attempt to escape an annoying kiddie song about loving the earth; Mari gets overly frustrated while learning spatial reasoning; and Ponijao is the scene-stealer with so much charisma that even in quiet moments, she's a complete hoot with open-mouth dog kisses and bodily exploration.
But jumping back and forth with no words, context, or commentary, we're left with a directionless montage of everyday baby life. It's interesting to see how much the Mongolian and Namibian children are left to their own devices. There's no baby bubble around these tykes to save them from the animals, the bike riding, or the big, bad dirt. And while Balmes tries not to insert opinions into the film, he can't help but thematically merge some scenes that make a pretty definitive statement -- dirt play is followed with extreme vacuuming and de-hairing, piles of products and baby diapers are juxtaposed with poo removal in Namibia. There's no diapers for the bare-bummed Ponijao. Bums get wiped on mom's leg, and then cleaned off with random debris on the ground.
While there are conclusions to be made -- connections between modernity and attitudes towards child development especially -- they are uninformed conclusions. The film leaves plenty of time to make connections and try to parse cultural and societal differences, but there isn't enough information by which to make any sort of educated guess. We see only the smallest part of these childrens' lives. The fathers in Mongolia and Namibia are clearly off working, but we don't know just how removed they are from their babies -- is it a cultural switch or simply a result of the days Balmes shot the children? In fact, we rarely see more than close shots of the babies, so their environment is often out of reach.
With no commentary, anthropological insight, or deeper looks into the subjects' lives, Babies is an overly long montage of first-year experiences with little substance. We see baby sleeping, cuddling, eating, and peeing, but ultimately, there are too many holes barring us from truly learning about Hattie, Bayar, Mari, and Ponijao's lives. If not a feature, but rather a crisply-edited short, the documentary could thrive as a quick journey into young life across the globe. At 79 minutes, however, Babies is more set on fandom than discovery, relishing in OMG BABY! love at the expense of baby depth.