Suzanne Tobias

'Babies' is a sweet salute to family bonds

It's fitting that "Babies" opens Mother's Day weekend. That's because the documentary, which I was lucky enough to enjoy all to myself on a quiet morning, is a mesmerizing look at motherhood — and humanity.

French director Thomas Balmes chronicled the first-year milestones of four infants from drastically different parts of the globe: Ponijao, a girl from Namibia; Mari, from Tokyo; Bayarjargal, the only boy, in Mongolia; and Hattie from San Francisco.

"Babies" features no narration and very little dialogue apart from the cries and coos of its infant cast. There's not even a plot. Rather, the camera moves leisurely and quietly from one scene to the next, offering intimate glimpses of family life along the way.

The message is this: No matter where they grow up or what sorts of parenting philosophies their parents adopt, babies are pretty much the same all over the world.

Ponijao, for instance, spends much of her day scooting around in the dirt at her mother's side, banging rocks together or carefully examining bits of bone. Bayarjargal — Bayar, for short — crawls out into fields scattered with goats and cattle.

Particularly shocking was watching Bayar's mother, not long after giving birth, carry her heavily swaddled son out of the remote Mongolian clinic and climb aboard her husband's motorcycle — um, ouch! —for the ride home.

Mari and Hattie, meanwhile, are surrounded by First World frills — computers, cell phones, glass elevators, all-terrain strollers, flashing lights, baby yoga, mothers who read "Becoming the Parent You Want to Be." And you end up wondering who's got it best.

The film's quiet, everyday moments illustrate how universal family dynamics really are. One scene shows Bayar's brother repeatedly hitting him in the face with a scarf. The baby cries, and the brother stops. Then he smacks Bayar again. And again. Any younger sibling or mother of two — I happen to be both — can identify.

"Babies," at about 1 1/2 hours long, would likely entertain children as well as moms and dads. Babies, as we know, love to watch babies, so the film is like a big-screen mirror that also features beautiful scenery and music. Its rating is PG, mostly for breastfeeding-related nudity.

Overall, it's a sweet look at firsts — first breaths, first smiles, first steps. It's a salute to family bonds all over the world. And for a movie with few words, it tends to leave you speechless.

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