| THE CHILD IS THE FATHER OF…SOMETHING: Above, young Bayar of Mongolia. Below, the author as a baby. |
IMAGE: Courtesy of Focus Features
Babies is a stupid name for a movie. “Everybody loves…BABIES” is a stupid tagline for a movie poster. Comparing a documentary about four human babies—from Mongolia, Tokyo, San Francisco and Namibia, respectively—to the Morgan Freeman-narrated March of the Penguins is a misleading promotional tactic. But I suppose that idea is going to get more butts in the seats than will a picture of young Ponijao from Namibia grabbing at his penis while chewing on an unidentified animal bone. “Two hours of completely plotless crying and drooling” isn’t a real catchy slogan.
Neither the existing marketing campaign nor my proposed revision (another possible tagline: “They’re demanding, they’re grumpy, they pee on anything in their general vicinity…they’re BABIES”) really gets at what this film is about. Babies isn’t a vehicle for cooing at life’s Johnson & Johnson moments: It’s the first movie to focus on communicating the feeling of actually being a baby. The scenery may be different, but for each of our li’l protagonists, the story is the same: Being a baby is really exhausting.
For two hours, the film submits to us close-ups of babies trying to learn to use their bodies and voices. The footage is devoid of narration or subtitles (with very little dialogue in any language to start with) and—with the exception of a few cross-cut sequences we could call “birth” or “animals” or “first steps”—completely dreamlike in presentation. All of this makes the viewer feel disoriented. The filmmakers’ insistence on low angles and close-ups makes us feel small. Adults are often presented like Charlie Brown’s teacher—we see a hanging breast or a pair of pants drift into frame for a moment and hear a few shards of disconnected language.
All four infants are given an incredible amount of dignity. Director Thomas Balmès focuses on moments when the children seem to be grasping for understanding. For Mari from Tokyo, there’s an incredible sequence in which she’s trying to put a toy together, and it keeps falling apart. Each time it slips out of place she screams like a banshee, throwing her body down to the floor in agony with a loud thud. Then she suddenly stops crying and tries again, only to face the same defeat. Most of the scenes, like this one, are shot with parents and other adults completely out of the picture, so we see the babies when they’re not trying to get the attention of Mom or Dad. Babies, it turns out, are a lot more lovable when they’re left alone.
But despite a handful of YouTube-worthy moments (mostly involving babies and cats onscreen at the same time) and the Sufjan Stevens-soundtracked closing montage, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking out of the theater thinking, “Let’s have a baby!” The film provokes a much more profound reaction: “I wonder what they’re thinking?” We were all babies once, obviously, but who among us can say we remember the experience? Who can remember his or her first bath or first time seeing a dog? Our first hunger or thirst? All these amazing memories that never got to be memories at all…where do they go? Are they in us somewhere?
That’s driven home in the film’s final scene, which finds Bayar, a chubby little guy from Mongolia, alone in a field of tall grass on a windy day. We’ve already caught glimpses of Bayar learning to walk, his hand on his brother’s shoulder as he steadies himself and carefully takes a few steps. But here he’s having some trouble finding his balance. He moves slowly and precisely, all his energies dedicated to the goal of getting to his feet as the wind pushes against him.
When he finally stands, Bayar smiles bigger and brighter than he has in the whole film. Suddenly you realize you’ve just spent 30 seconds of your life rooting for this kid, not because you know him or love him or want to be around him, but because you were him, and leaning into a strong gust of wind for the first time in one’s life is a joy that can’t possibly be topped. You’ve lost something, and there’s no getting it back.