This weekend's big attraction, of course, is Iron Man 2, which offers spectacle and wonder the likes of which you've never seen. As an alternative, Focus Features is inviting the audience to marvel at something ordinary enough that it unites all humans, but miraculous enough that it inspires tears of awe. They're talking, of course, about Babies.
The brilliantly simple film, following four babies in four different countries through their first year of life, is the brainchild of French producer Alain Chabat and director Thomas Balmes; it shouldn't surprise you that it comes from the same country that originated March of the Penguins and Winged Migration. Treating human children as if they were as mysterious and unknowable as penguins or sparrows, Babies dispenses with subtitles, title cards, or even biographical details of the parents beyond their locations in the world. The filmmakers do their best to see the world as children might, captivated by cats or goats or running water, limited in their knowledge to the tiny world inhabited by infants.
The four children are selected to provide as wide a range of humanity as possible, though it seems a mistake to include both urban children Hattie (in San Francisco) and Mari (in Tokyo), as middle-class lives between Japan and the United States don't seem that different, at least for newborns. The really fascinating stuff almost always comes from Bayard, living on the Mongolian steppe with goat farmer parents, or Ponijao, tended exclusively by her mother in a tiny Namibian village. It's startling and beautiful to see a goat pop its head in the window when Bayard takes a bath, or watching Ponijao's mother wipe her baby's poop off her body with a dried corncob. It's impossible to describe without resorting to pat truisms about the diversity of the world and wonder of watching mother and child; really you just have to see it for yourself.
Babies' most impressive feat is the way it toes the line between cute and cloying, using bouncy music and funny montages but never pushing the audience to realize how cute these babies are; Balmes knows that Hattie, Mari, Bayard and Ponijao are adorable capable of making us realize that on their own. The film's simplicity is its greatest strength, but it does start to drag things a bit near the end-- it's just an 80 minute film, but we eventually do miss the presence of conflict, narrative, characters, or any of the other standard elements of most films. The experiential, awe-filled nature of Babies works for about an hour or so, but by the time Mari blows out the candles on her first birthday cake, it's hard not to feel a little restless.
Even so, Babies isn't just for the kind of people who coo at anything in a stroller or collect Anne Geddes posters. Showing them at their dirtiest (Ponijao happily wallowing in mud), their meanest (Hattie hitting her mom in the face, Mari throwing a hilarious tantrum) and their wildest (Bayar gamboling obliviously between the feet of cattle), Balmes rescues these little humans from the cutesy ghetto, revealing them once again for the weird miracles they really are. Even if you're exasperated by Hattie's crunchy San Francisco parents or worn out by the simple montages, Babies is remarkably fascinating throughout, and moving in its own spacey, noncommittal way. If your Iron Man 2 screening is sold out this weekend, give Babies a try; you'll be equally as amazed, and without a single frame of CGI.