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Old 05-08-2010, 12:07 PM
Thomas Balmes's Babies

Here's the link to the published version of the review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:

Babies (2010)

I've written before about how documentaries must follow the main rule of being about an interesting subject. "Babies," the new documentary by Thomas Balmes, doesn't have this problem as babies can be fascinating to watch sometimes. However, there is another rule, one that is more secondary because it is not usually a problem, even when the documentary breaks rule number one: It must have something to say.

The film follows four babies in four different cultures from their birth to when they are about one year old. Ponijao lives in a poor village in Africa, Mari in the bustling city of Tokyo, Japan, Hattie in San Francisco, and Bayar in Mongolia. We watch as they go about their normal days, which all tend to revolve around similar activities like being breastfed or bathing. The poorer babies don't really have much to do but sit around and interact with animals, while the richer ones have toys to play with.

It was interesting to see how these babies spend their days. The babies in Africa and Mongolia strangely didn't seem to have that much parental supervision, whereas the babies in Tokyo and San Francisco always seemed to have a parent watching them, and in some cases they would go to classes or other functions with other babies. The climax of the film, if you want to call it that, shows the babies as they attempt to take their first steps, concluding as one of them triumphantly gets to their feet.

This would have been fine, had the film actually had something to say about its subject, but all the film consists of is the routines that babies go through day to day. They crawl around, interact with their parents, siblings, and pets (if they have either of these last two), go to the bathroom, and explore their environment.

Sadly, this is not groundbreaking information, nor does the film seem to get at a point deeper than babies are very similar despite their culture, which isn't new news either. Balmes seems to think that just watching the babies is enough, and that he doesn't have to go any deeper than that, but if he doesn't have anything interesting to say about these babies that he's spent so much time with, what was the whole point of the venture?

Without a point to be had, what we end up with feels like 79 minutes of home movies that anyone could have collected. Balmes relies too much on the audience to simply sit back and go "awwww" every few seconds. For some people, this is enough, for as soon as the first baby appeared on the screen, the “awws” started. But for others, documentaries are meant to teach you something you didn't already know, which this one doesn't do.

There are some good parts to the film too. Most of these come from the babies' interactions with the animals. Most of the families have a cat which the baby would try to examine, either by dragging it along, grabbing it, or petting it roughly. One of the families has dogs living nearby. This baby grabs at the dog's paws and mouth in wonderment. Do they have any idea what these big furry things are?

A fascinating moment not involving an animal comes near the end of the film, when one of the babies is trying to put a round peg into a round hole in a toy. This bit of footage perfectly illustrates the thin line between drama and comedy. The baby gets it in once, but then fails several times, throws the toys away and cries, while the audience laughs repeatedly at their reaction. In a sense, this sums up the film really well. Balmes is able to achieve some interesting moments like this, but just can't get any deeper for a majority of the film, while the audience sits back and laughs at the silly parts.

It's a shame that moments like those with the animals and the peg get lost in a film like this. If anything, this film could at least serve as an introduction to motherhood that would show new parents what to expect from their babies. Hopefully next time Balmes makes a documentary, he'll have more of a purpose in mind, because without it, he's simply not giving his audience any reason to care. 2.5/4 stars.
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