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Visual baby essay a not-so-cute overload

Babies

Rated:PG
Studio:Focus Features
Director:Thomas Balmès
Genre:Documentary
Our Rating:

Socrates is credited as saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Of course, he was on trial for heresy at the time and referring to the need for his students to carefully consider their own beliefs. But in this shoot-first, upload-later age, the pertinent question is whether or not the examined life is even worth sharing.

Case in point: the feature-length documentary, Babies, which concerns itself with four newborns respectively raised in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and America, as they urinate, defecate, cry, scream and coo their way through their first year of life. The cultural differences are kept to the varying languages in which lullabies are sung, the pets and livestock that tolerate a rough petting and the obnoxious siblings who play a bit too rough with their new kinfolk. The universal banalities come in the form of nameless mothers breast-feeding their offspring while faceless fathers watch them take their first steps. To make matters worse, the soundtrack is a drowsy affair for such a showcase of tedium.

So why make this unofficial sequel to PBS’ The Miracle of Life? After all, March of the Penguins was cute and fascinating for the cultural, emotional and survival-method similarities to our own; Babies, meanwhile, is an endurance test filled with commonplace frustrations and woefully lacking in true multicultural insight. (The American baby doesn’t care for the family’s Jacuzzi! The African baby constantly wards off flies!) Were penguins to watch films, do you think they’d opt for a documentary all about how their own progeny compare to one another? “Old news,” they’d squawk.

Director Thomas Balmes and producer Alain Chabat see no need for narration; they’re content to let the children babble for themselves while their parents hang around in the background or just offscreen. (To be fair, it’s not like the film is called Families. That’d be overkill.) 

Compare this to Britain’s Up series, which returns to its subjects every seven years to see where life has taken them. That series’ maker, Michael Apted, made great pains to contextualize the kids he observed, by way of class diversity and its inevitable effect on a given child’s future. Balmes and Chabat are instead more content with lesser contexts, keen to simply let the cameras roll as infants cry and cry and scream and cry some more. Did I know going in that a tribal mother will scrape her child’s feces off her knee with a dried-out corncob? Maybe not, but did I need to know that? Does anyone?

Not every movie has to have conflict to be worthwhile, but every documentary should at least provide scope for its subjects; otherwise, we’re simply watching a home movie with all the boring parts left in. Babies offers four slices of life that are almost entirely without flavor, questionably organic and akin to those jars of pre-digested baby food that line the grocery aisles. It’s as undemanding as movies get and hardly worth examining at all.

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