Despite some intriguing differences in child-rearing around the globe, pooping , drooling and crying appear to be universal.
It's a familiar approach to nature documentaries. Follow a group of cubs through the first year of their life as they frolic in the wild, doing cute little-animal things. "Babies" applies the formula to four human children from Africa, Japan, Mongolia and the United States (well, San Francisco).
French director Thomas Balmes uses a handsome National Geographic cinema style combined with YouTube aesthetic of close-up intimacy. The feature proceeds without narration. We open on little Ponijao in her mud hut Namibian hamlet. There are other babies to play with, his mother, aunts and other female villagers. Are the men away hunting? Is child-rearing a task they delegate strictly to women? Your guess is as good as mine.
The other babies have both sets of parents on hand. Bayarjargal lives in a portable yurt with his folks, who keep a field of farm animals, dogs and cats. Mari's mom and dad dote on her in their tiny Tokyo apartment. Hattie's coddle her with trips to San Francisco playgrounds and "Mommy and Me" classes. In suitably progressive Bay Area fashion, her daddy co-parents.
The globe-hopping story is bound together by chronology -- the babies begin to laugh, explore their surroundings and take their first wobbly steps at more or less the same time -- and by the chipper musical score from Bruno Coulais ("Coraline").
The film makes ethnographic points without overstressing their importance. Without explanation we observe Ponijao's mommy painting her with red ochre. It wouldn't have spoiled the purity of this mini-portrait for Balmes to indicate that the vibrant body paint is a sunscreen. Other vignettes speak for themselves. When the unattended Bayarjargal crawls beneath one of the family cows, you can only imagine the panic that Hattie's ever-hovering folks would have felt if it had been her. The contrast between unstructured life in rural cultures and hyperattentive parenting in world cities is entertaining; in San Francisco, a kid toppling into a sandbox is a calamity.
At 79 minutes the film is overlong, making a point that could have been made in a short. What "Babies" discovers is provocative, if hardly surprising. They crawl, eat, play, drool, fall asleep and cry adorably. The lives of newborns are universal.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186