May 5 2010 12:00 AM

Babies: Cute is the universal language

It’s not uncommon to hear a movie described as “cute.” Often, that’s not a compliment. But if there’s any film that truly deserves to be described with that particular adjective, it must be “Babies,” director Thomas Balmes’ documentary examining the first months in the lives of four infants. To borrow a phrase from an old Robert Palmer hit, its simply irresistible.

In early 2006, Balmes set out to record the first-year experiences of a quartet of children being raised in locations around the world. Ponijao is a girl born in a village in Namibia; Mari lives with her parents in downtown Tokyo; Hattie is the daughter of a pair of San Franciscans; and Bayarjagal (Bayar, for short) is a boy growing up on a farm in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.

Although the locales are different, the babies share a few similar experiences, such as breast-feeding, learning to maneuver around their worlds and, in the case of Ponijao and Bayar, dealing with older siblings that aren’t always the best of playmates.

What’s unusual about Balmes’ film is its complete lack of narration or commentary. “Babies” presents its various vignettes without explanation, although viewers may have something to say about Bayar getting uncomfortably close to the animals around the family’s home or Hattie taking a spill on her scooter (a scene that brought shrieks of horror from some audience members at a preview screening).

Much of what Balmes and his crew have done involves contrasting everyday activities in the four locations. Hattie, for instance, gets cleaned up by taking a shower as her father holds her; Ponijao, who lives in a place where water is a precious resource, is licked clean by his mother; Bayar is hand-washed in a little tub, with his mother meticulously taking care of what might be called hard-toreach spots.

The socialization process also differs from place to place. Mari is part of what looks to be a playgroup for upscale moms and their kids, while Hattie is enrolled in a New Age-y sort of exercise class. Ponijao demonstrates that even in Namibia little girls entertain princess fantasies: When her mother puts a little ersatz crown on her head, the toddler parades around in front of her friends like a Miss Universe contestant.

It’s sequences such as these that make “Babies” irresistibly appealing. Although we may not understand everything about Bayar’s upbringing, we can appreciate the sense of wonder in his eyes as he stares at his wiggling toes and strains to reach them. One of the movie’s biggest laughs comes from Mari’s frustration in her playroom: Unable to get a toy assembled properly, she erupts in rage, rolling around and howling as only a toddler can. Parents around the world will probably have exactly the same thought: nap time.

Balmes and his team shot 400 hours of footage, and many of the most beautiful passages in “Babies” are the little episodes in which the camera catches one of the little ones in a minute of total isolation, when we get a glimpse of the child’s private universe.

In one scene, Hattie is playing in her room when she hears a noise somewhere else in the apartment. “Mama?” she says, looking into the distance. “Papa?” She listens intently and picks up a recognizable sound. “Papa!” she declares, and waddles off to find him.

Watching her analyze what she hears, you can almost see her thought processes. It’s a moment of pure magic, reminding us that all the special effects and digital trickery in the world can’t produce the same sense of awe we can find in simply watching one another.


Opening Friday at NCG Lansing Eastwood (517) 316-9100