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Child's play: Babies



*Babies (PG)

Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three

Say what you will about Thomas Balmès' new documentary, but you can't accuse it of false advertising. Look at How Cute might also have worked as a title, but the director obviously wants some points for nonchalance. His film follows four babies through their first year of life: Bayar, in Mongolia; Mari, in Tokyo; Ponijao, in Namibia; and Hattie, in San Francisco.

Hattie is actually the daughter of American independent filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw, who contributed cinematography here. That might seem peculiar, but it's important to bear in mind that far stranger quid pro quos have occurred in the history of moviemaking. Reportedly, Bradshaw got his gig behind the camera first, then had a funny-you-should-ask moment when Balmès inquired about possible American subjects to go in front of it. Young Hattie gets no special treatment, necessarily, and it would be missing the point to play favorites anyway. The point being that babies are pretty much the same everywhere: adorable!

Babies has no narration and no real scenes per se, although overheard snippets of parental conversation occasionally progress toward dialogue, and the infants' naked needs do assume the weight of universally familiar dramatic objectives. (Must. Put. In. Mouth. Etc.) Sometimes the editing emphasizes parallel actions — first steps, say, or groping interactions with family pets. But just as often, the shots and sequences seem to come and go as they please — just like the emphatically pleasant incidental music, apparently on hand to serve up some major-key reassurance that no harm will befall the increasingly curious tots.

That subconscious disclaimer is useful, actually; it allows Balmès enough distance to stay cool even when recording such potential perils as a child left unattended among clambering livestock or flung too quickly off a playground slide. It's all about just hanging around and watching, letting the subjects speak (or gurgle or bawl or coo) for themselves. That little laughing Swedish whippersnapper on YouTube had his gimmick, but Babies strives to present a more meditative portrait of emergent humans doing what they do: growing quickly, resembling their parents, morphing from precious little learning machines into people.

Meanwhile, Balmès passes no ostensible judgements on child-rearing techniques. If we happen to notice that only the Americans bother to read any parenting books, it's probably because we can relate to their neuroses. If we especially like the part where the Mongolian goat sidles up to Bayar's tub of bathwater and starts guzzling, it's probably because Mother Nature has brought all of us up to appreciate her flair for comedy.

Only a sociopath would take Babies as merely a dispassionate work of anthropology. Really, it's closer to an array of home movies, but with production values. How much you like it, of course, will depend entirely on your tolerance for the ingratiating preciousness of other people's kids. For scale alone, no amount of Facebook-posted videos and Flickr slideshows can match the childhood privacy invaded or peer interest presumed by this film's run on big screens worldwide. In theaters just in time for Mother's Day weekend, it should have no trouble finding its intended audience.

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Official Site:

Director: Thomas Balm├Ęs

Producer: Alain Chabat, Amandine Billot and Christine Rouxel

Cast: Ponijao, Bayarjargal, Mari and Hattie

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