Each baby is on their own little, independent schedule, yet all babies are similarly awe-inducing for those who like that kind of thing. But frankly, you'd have to be cold stone to emotionally resist the scene of little Ponijao asleep while sitting up, slumping and nodding herself upright with closed eyes fluttering. It's just one of many such touchingly mundane moments that are mildly fascinating when given such singular focus in Thomas Balmès' documentary Babies, which follows four babies from around the world during their first year and a half of life.
Using no narration--and just the occasional words coming from family members that can barely be heard under the subtle soundtrack--and no interference from the film crew, Babies cycles from baby to baby at matching ages from just before they were born through to their first steps. Ponijao in Namibia, South Africa, grows up playing in the dirt with her siblings and cousins. Her momma uses a sharp knife to cut her hair and a corn cob to wipe poo, and a little patch of leather hangs on a cord wrapped around her chubby waist.
Over in Mongolia, Bayar is wrapped in tight swaddling and takes a motorcycle ride home from the hospital. He sleeps on rugs with a cat, and as he grows, he too crawls around with cattle in the yard, his parents nearby in the fields. When Bayar learns to sit, his mischievous older brother taunts him with a scarf until tears come, then his brother stops and stares at the camera waiting for a reaction--when he doesn't get one, he begins teasing Bayar again.
The baby girl Mari lives in Tokyo with her young parents in a small modern apartment--again with a cat. She smiles when she sleeps, pulls CDs off the shelf, and has the most frustrating playtime with a wooden set of colored rings. The poor girl tries to put the center pole in a lavender ring, fails, and flings herself back onto the floor over and over again.
Finally, Hattie is a little blond who doesn't like the outdoor Jacuzzi much and walks out of a Native American sing-along and lives with her crunchy San Franciscan parents. At one point, Hattie slaps her mom, who then offers her a copy of No Hitting and asks her if she remembers the book; in another scene, her good time peeling a banana gets ruined for half a second when she takes bites from the wrong end.
All four healthy babies grow up in loving environments, and Babies shows how child raising varies per culture as a means to say, it seems, that it all works. Documentaries illuminate their subject and enlighten the audience; here the subject is adorable and funny and resilient. And never have goats and dogs and chickens seem so benevolent.