Movie review: 'Babies' documents the early life of four children

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

"Babies" might be the first post-YouTube documentary. With no narration, explanatory text or conventional narrative structure, it invites viewers simply to watch and revel in things doing their thing -- or in this case, babies being babies.

A group portrait of infants coming of age in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, "Babies" is a mesmerizing and weirdly manipulative experience, combining wide-eyed innocence and shrewd cultural commentary as it chronicles the folkways and familial rites of four starkly different societies.

While two affluent couples in Tokyo and San Francisco raise their daughters with plenty of age-appropriate accouterments and New Age earnestness, a little boy on the Mongolian steppe shares his bath water with a goat, and a girl growing up in a tiny African village learns how to pound red clay from the dirt. But "Babies" resolutely refuses to judge, at least explicitly, instead suggesting that privilege and deprivation -- at least by Western standards -- are relative.

With stunning high-definition video images, director Thomas Balm?s goes the classic pictorials of National Geographic one better, discreetly observing his young subjects over two years as they come into the world, discover their environment, begin to talk and, finally, learn how to walk. In Namibia, little Ponijao spends most of her days outside, with her mother never far away; in Mongolia, Bayarjargal lives in a yurt, where his parents follow the custom of tying him to a bedpost when they must leave him unattended. (In one scene he blithely crawls among a herd of cows, narrowly escaping being trampled.)

In Tokyo, Mari's father talks on a cellphone while distractedly fiddling with a mobile over his daughter's crib; in California, Hattie's mother reacts to a brief outburst of toddler aggression by pulling out a book called "No Hitting." In one of the film's most amusing juxtapositions, Hattie attends a hippy-dippy singalong to Mother Earth with other Mommies and Me's; moments later we see little Poni literally covered in Mother Earth while she sucks on a rock.

As provocative as these sequences are, clearly the filmmakers' aim with "Babies" is to celebrate the grand universals of growing up. (They leave it to viewers to ask more-probing questions about the health and education prospects for the kids and their mothers.) No matter what their surroundings, each child reaches the same essential milestones, with attendant feelings of triumph and hope.

"Babies" may not follow the usual plotlines, but it tells the most high-stakes story of all, which is nothing less than the drama of bonding and -- almost simultaneously -- letting go.

*** PG. At area theaters. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Contains maternal nudity throughout. 79 minutes.

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