by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
“Babies” babies us. But we don’t mind because we get to, well, look at babies.
It’s that simple.
“Babies” (2010) is an observational-cinema documentary that looks in on a year in the life of four tiny real-life title characters from their birth through the quantum-leap moments when they take their first steps.
Fascinating in its simplicity and culled from two years’ worth of filming, it’s a parade of privileged moments from four intermingled sets of candid camerawork for our perusal and pleasure.
Without a word of narration, the film establishes the four locations as we look in on one baby each from a quartet of newborns from Opuwo, Namibia; Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Tokyo, Japan; and San Francisco.
We follow their progress and development from their dramatic entrance to life on this planet to the time when they take those first tentative steps during their second year of life.
As we jump from one location to another, from one baby to another, we begin to notice in each both uniqueness and commonality.
There is no denying that, in another context, these would be glorified home movies, but French filmmaker Thomas Balmes, an anthropological documentarian who also served as his own cinematographer, makes them something more without pushing his work into pretentiousness or mawkishness. The miraculousness of the whole process is just taken for granted and left in the fuzzy background, probably where it belongs.
But there’s no commentary whatsoever — no verbal multicultural comparisons, no helpful psychological insights, no names to go with the faces — for one very simple reason, the same reason why we don’t yearn for any: because none is needed. Each of these pictures really is worth a thousand of those other things.
We watch the babies’ physical development, notice the ways in which their personalities emerge, and observe as they are socialized by their particular environment.
The “Awww” response certainly comes into play here — who doesn’t like looking at cute babies? — but as the film proceeds, we become ever so slightly frustrated when we come to realize that director Balmes has no intention of telling us how to process the footage we’re taking in or what to think about it.
Balmes’ graceful montages — of breastfeeding, crawling, standing, walking, eating solid food, and speaking — are priceless. But we still wish that they were offered to us not as a destination but as a journey on the way to something more.
That said, “Babies” pleases and compels, maybe even rivets, because there’s never been a movie like it. But that will have to be enough.
It may not be laudable or admirable. But it’s pretty much irresistible, this unusual, life-affirming, Awww-inspiring cross-cultural documentary, resonating with anthropological universality. You’ve come a long way, “Babies,” and in such a short time.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.