Monday, December 9

Screen Scene: “Babies”


“Babies” follows four newborns, each from very different countries, for the first year of their life. From the actual births, to walking, talking, sleeping and eating, the film highlights both the differences and the similarities in the upbringing of these infants from Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the United States.

Devoid of commentary and any real plot trajectory, “Babies” relies solely on the wonder of these infants to hold the attention of the audience ““ and it is more than enough. Rather than reducing “Babies” to a dull string of images, the relative quiet of the film creates a purer atmosphere with which to witness the miracle of the beginning of these lives.

In an early scene, we see the father of Tokyo baby Mari on the telephone, barely paying attention to his daughter, who is lying on the bed before him. He entertains her simply by shaking a rattle over her head, and Mari watches the rattle intensely, completely rapt.

This scene gets tremendous and sustained laughter from the audience, presumably at how little it takes to entertain a young child.

But on another level, the audience is just like Mari ““ fascinated by watching her and the other babies, in awe of this natural aspect of life brought to our close attention.

Though the setup of the movie was surely designed in part to showcase the differing child-rearing practices around the world, “Babies” leaves the audience with more of a sense of how alike life is at its very start, no matter where in the world it begins. Certainly a movie about middle schoolers would show a more vast divergence in lifestyle across the globe.

But I see this as one of the film’s strengths ““ it becomes something more universal than a National Geographic show about birthing practices around the world, which often seems designed to deny relatability and highlight differences. “Babies” is a world-wide celebration of life.

The infancy that does stand out as most different from our own is that of Ponijao, who lives in a small village in Namibia. She is, perhaps because of this, the most exciting to watch.

At one point, Ponijao gets a haircut ““ more specifically, a complete shave of her little bald head with what appears to be a very sharp knife. As Ponijao wriggles and squirms in her mother’s lap, there is for the audience a kind of fear and an incredulity that anyone would cut a newborn’s hair with a sharp blade.

But then you remember what kind of movie you’re watching ““ there is no shock factor, no eerie music, no violence for the sake of selling movie tickets, and there’s also no judgment on child-rearing techniques.

From the rattle-shaking to the sabotage of older brothers ““ this film got more consistent laughter from the audience than any comedy I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s beyond refreshing to see how much enjoyment can be achieved in a movie without danger, drama, 3-D goggles or the distraction of inane human chatter.

E-mail Bastien at [email protected]

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