As I move closer into the inescapable world of adulthood, I find myself cornered into the usual conversations about work, going back to school, and babies. I think it’s safe to say that many of you out there have experienced the same thing in one form or another. Going back home for the holidays, you inevitably find yourself defending whatever lifestyle choices you’ve made, and when you’ll fill the house with the screams and laughter of little ones. I won’t get too personal on this matter, but I’ll just say that I’m growing more enthusiastic about having children, and Thomas Balmes’ film, Babies, certainly didn’t hurt things. In fact, I challenge you all to see the film, or at the very least watch the trailer, and not fall in love with the idea of having children of your own, no matter how cynical you may be. Our modern American culture has divided many I know between those that find babies adorable, and those that find them obnoxious. Okay, that is certainly simplifying two complex groups of people, perhaps unfairly. An art movment I’ve noticed over my own lifetime, has been that of the “cute” finding it’s way into everything. From comic books to cartoons, from toys to paintings to films, corners are being rounded, monsters are being made lovable. It is most likely a post-“generation x” response to the alternative, grunge years of the 90s, where art was dour, grim, introspective. There are, of course, remnants of the 90’s alive and well today in the form of the sarcastic, cynical, contrarians that feel the need to rain on any hope, or happiness that the world may be shifting towards. Babies is a shot across the bow at those cynics.
Babies films the lives of four children, from different countries, born into different economic classes, each experiencing the same trials and tribulations that the first year of life brings with it. From life in their mothers bellies, to the joyous moments when they stand, walk, and eventually run, we see that while these babies may be raised in dramatically different environments and conditions, their stories are global, shared experiences. Toys are played with, animals poked and loved. The parents teach, scold, nourish, and love these children unconditionally, bringing an overwhelming sense of hope, in a world of filled with fear and division. This is a breath of fresh air. A joyous, heartwarming tale, that will have you cheering at the simple feat of standing up under ones own power.
The stories are told in alternating succession, moving around the globe from Namibia to Mongolia, from Japan to San Francisco. The film is almost radical in it’s simplicity, by showing us scenes without narration, with minimal dialog, never translated, shot in extended sequences with little to no editing within the shot. It allows these babies to breathe, and allows the audience to not feel overly manipulated by quick cuts. We are given shots that last just long enough to take you through the range of emotions that the children are experiencing. You’ll experience the frustration, the joy, and the wonder of one’s first year of life.
The first thing I noticed about the filmmaking, evidenced early on in the trailer, is the practice of setting the camera as close to the ground as possible when capturing the children on film. It attempts, as often as possible, to capture the babies perspective from their place in the world. The cinematography hardly ever looks down on them, and is never condescending when it does. This is no series of YouTube clips, this is a film.
The film’s score is often repetitive, occasionally irritating, as the lyrics used in one of the songs feel out of place in the story being constructed. I say constructed not in the sense that what we are seeing is a fiction, but there is a narrative being laid out before us. I could understand that by using a simple piece of music over and over again, would add to the repetitious nature of our lives at such an early age, but I don’t think that was the intention. I would much rather have had the film set to Philip Glass, in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi, giving a much more atmospheric mood. The music at times serves the editing well, but as soon as the song with lyrics begins, and then begins again, I was instantly taken out of the environment. Because the lyrics are in English, they brand the film with whatever associations you might already have with the song, or a song similar to it.
By not focusing on the children’s lives from the point of view of the parents, we are free of any political messages that the parents might try to press upon the viewers, through their own parenting philosophies. We learn all that we need to know about the parents through the eyes of the children, through their surroundings, the toys they play with, the friends they are raised around, the play groups they attend.
The film very specifically chooses to not translate any of the languages, which allows the imagery to speak for itself. This also adds to the confusion that the children must be feeling as they grow, showing that there is nothing unique about each language, while at the same time showing how powerful language is in our development. Clearly the children don’t have any idea why they’re scolded, or what it is the parents are talking about, but you can see their minds soaking up all of the information around them.
On a more personal note, my favorite of the four tales was the child in Mongolia. His life on a farm, with a torturous brother, is one I found especially inspiring, and joyful. I hate to spoil any specific moments in the film, as each are told in an often hilarious, honest way, but I’ll say that my favorite scene with Bayar involves a roll of toilet paper.
Babies shows how beautiful, terrifying, and often hilarious, our first year of life is, no matter where you find yourself born into. It doesn’t focus on the political, racial, or class issues that are obviously present within each story, as it is not the point. We are meant to live alongside these children, through all of the ups and downs, joys and frustrations that life presents. While it may not appeal to all, in this world divided between those people who either embrace the cute, or reject it, it is certainly accessible to all. It is a beautifully shot, touching film, looking at a time in our life that we have very little chance at remembering on our own. In this world of countless home videos on YouTube, it stands above the simple, poorly shot video clip, hopefully inspiring future generations of parents towards greater cinematography when capturing the lives of their newborns.
Babies opens in theaters this Friday, May 7th, strategically placed for Mothers Day, and is well worth the price of admission and it’s 80 minute running time.