A clear line will be drawn in the sand -- or the sandbox, if you will -- when it comes to the way people respond to "Babies."
If you've never had one or you're not into them -- if the sound of cooing sends chills down your spine and the idea of changing a diaper turns your stomach -- then you're unlikely to be moved by this documentary that follows four babies from around the world, starting with birth and ending with their first steps. Be warned, the cute factor is high.
But if you're already a mom or dad -- or better yet, a new mom, like yours truly -- you'll be moved nearly to tears by the beauty of the film's universality, by moments that are so artful and intimate, they'll make you wonder how it's possible that any family would let a filmmaker in so close to shoot them.
French director Thomas Balmes brings us the daily ins and outs, from mundane moments to milestones, of four infants living disparate lives: Ponijao, a girl from Namibia; Mari, a baby girl in Tokyo; Hattie from San Francisco, and Bayarjargal, the only boy (and the biggest scene-stealer) in Mongolia. Balmes does this without narration, without marking the passage of time or even subtitles to clarify what's being said; then again, there are very few words. Instead, he roams from one baby to the next as they cry, eat, sleep, play and -- eventually -- crawl, stand up and walk.
It's a bold storytelling approach: Balmes runs the risk of alienating his audience members, the vast majority of whom won't be able to understand what's being said. "Babies" frequently lacks momentum because there's no strong narrative drive, just an easy, casual stroll from baby to baby, moment to moment. Then again, the familiarity of infancy emerges in time. When a mother assuages her child on an African plane or in a Japanese high-rise, it's clear what she's saying.
At the same time, the differences are striking. Helicopter parenting doesn't seem to exist in Mongolia, for example, where adorable Bayarjargal crawls out by himself into a scruffy field in the sunshine wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a diaper. Soon he's surrounded by cattle, all of whom seem to know instinctively to step carefully around this delicate creature, to protect him. When Ponijao bends down to sip water from a stream in the desert, you can almost hear the moms in the audience cringing because it's not sanitary.
But parents in the United States will also get a kick out of Hattie's reaction when her mom drags her to a crunchy-granola, mommy-and-me song circle. Her instinct is to run screaming for the door. (Smart cookie. Learning early.) Similarly, Mari has a prolonged and hilarious tantrum when she can't figure out how to stack a series of blocks in her bedroom. These are little people with big personalities, and Balmes lucked out in finding them; after all, he arranged to film these families while the babies were still in the womb.
Balmes shot nearly all this footage himself, 400 hours of it, all on a tripod, and the stillness of the lengthy moments that result can be mesmerizing. In crisp high definition and accompanied by Bruno Coulais' gorgeous score, he shows us everything from grand vistas of the Mongolian planes to nighttime quiet of a Namibian family's hut.
At a time when there are so many conflicting parenting theories -- and so much militant mommyism about the "right way" to raise a child -- one of the greatest strengths of "Babies" is that it refrains from judging any of these parents or pushing any agenda, and just lets us admire the sweetness and strength of the family bond for a little while.
"Babies," a Focus Features release, is rated PG for cultural and maternal nudity throughout. Running time: 82 minutes. Released in 2-D only. Three stars out of four.