Babies (PG) (79 min.) — I'm not the target audience for Thomas Balmes' global baby scrapbook. The movie runs 79 minutes, which is about how long it takes me to diaper an infant. This one is for all the moms out there, and just in time for Mother's Day. Babies might tempt a few to rewind their biological clocks; another male reviewer at the screening joked that condoms should come with the tickets.
Balmes takes a unique approach, filming four newborns around the world through their first birthday, without narration or subtitles and not much English. More than usual in modern documentaries, the camera and viewers simply observe without questions raised, or viewpoints expressed.
Of course, questions aren't answered, either. I'd like to know what these women think about their husbands not contributing much — in one case, nothing — to the parenting shown on screen. Is that the family's choice, or just Balmes' editing? At times, his no-frills technique frustrates as well as intrigues. But there's always a cuddly moment coming to make the structural boo-boos better.
The profiled babies come from a variety of backgrounds: Ponijao lives in dusty Namibian plains, where rocks pass as toys and fathers apparently are out hunting and gathering. Bayar is the son of a Mongolian goat herder, a few notches above Ponijao's economic status. Mari is born into middle-class Tokyo, and Hattie grows up with New Age parenting classes in San Francisco.
Yet those differences in culture are matched by remarkable instincts and experiences each child shares. Each mother has a prenatal ritual to relax, breast-feeding is primary, and sibling antagonism knows no language barrier. The funniest moments in Babies occur when an older brother shows dominance over the new kid. Some of these observations deserve context and comparison that a lack of narration can't provide.
But that's just the movie critic and armchair child psychologist in me talking. The part that can't pass a cooing infant without smiling and making baby talk enjoyed each minute of Babies. It's the nicest Mother's Day gift available at the movies this weekend. B
Steve Persall, Times film critic