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Go Ask Mom

Review: New film traces babies' first year

Posted May 4, 2010 10:29 p.m. EDT

Bayarjargal, who lives in Mongolia with his family, is one of four babies followed from birth to first steps in Thomas Balmès' BABIES, a Focus Features release.

Photo credit: Focus Features

The aww-fest begins right away in Focus Films' new documentary "Babies." The film, in theaters Friday just in time for Mother's Day, follows four babies across the globe in their first year of life.

The movie opens with the same scene that started its much-watched trailer: Ponijao of Namibia and another child fight over a plastic bottle ultimately leaving Ponijao in exaggerated tears, a woman gently scolding and laughing.

"Babies" captures those kinds of day-to-day moments. Some are monumental; others quickly forgotten. The babies are always at the center of it.

Don't expect dialogue, narration or narrative to move the story along. There are, frustratingly, no details or context about their lives other than their names and where they live.

There are just the adorable faces, antics, milestones and emotions captured in the lives of the little ones: Ponijao of the African plains of Namibia; urban dweller Mari of Tokyo; yurt-dwelling Bayar, the only boy, of Mongolia; and Hattie of San Francisco raised by her hippie, green, earnest parents.

We see the babies up close in scenes that might evoke gasps from some and laughs from others. There's Ponijao poking her hand in a dogs mouth or lapping up the water from a stream. There's Bayar unwrapping a role of toilet paper while tethered to a bed so his busy mother, no doubt, could finish all her chores. Mari throwing herself down on the floor, diva-like, when she gets frustrated with a toy. And Hattie trying to escape a song circle where the leader is chanting to Mother Earth.

It's remarkable some of the similarities despite how different their lives are. Their baby babble all sounds the same. There are the same plastic, preschool-sized blocks in the Mongolian yurt that I have at my own house.

The film provides a fascinating look at how children in other parts of the world are raised. I'll never forget the scene where we learn how they do without diapers in Africa. (It involves a corn cob.) And there's the freedom the babies had in Africa and Mongolia to explore. Bayar in Mongolia is found crawling around baby cows and across the Mongolian countryside, a scene that is especially gorgeous.

I almost felt sorry for the babies in the United States and Japan, where their world seemed to be spent mostly indoors (in spite of that song circle chant about Mother Earth) or in structured activities like playgroups. I wished the filmmakers found a family more representative of the average family in America, which might have made the differences and similarities between the others more stark.

Regardless, all of this might make the film hard to sit through for those who aren't taken with dimpled knees and wet raspberry sounds.

For the rest of us, it's a reminder of just how quickly babies grow up. When the credits rolled, I went home and hugged my own.

You'll find "Babies" at the Rialto in Raleigh, Galaxy Cinema in Cary and Carolina Theatre in Durham. The film is rated PG for cultural and maternal nudity throughout (primarily scenes of breastfeeding and babies with no diapers).