Focus Features
May 05, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even in movies, babies tend to have a very special effect — in fact, you might call them God’s ultimate special effect. Whenever the face of an infant comes on screen, the coos and giggles and cuddly-sweet ”Awwww!”s from the audience tend to follow right on cue. And so an entire documentary called Babies should, by all rights, be a crowd-pleasing sugar rush of irresistible cute joy. It’s to the credit of the film’s French director, Thomas Balmès, that this 79-minute trifle, which tracks the budding lives of four wee ones from four dramatically different parts of the world (Japan, Mongolia, Namibia, and the United States), doesn’t overdose on adorability. Balmès is a very, very passive documentarian: no narration, no talking heads, and not much editorial decisiveness, either. He just sets up the camera and lets the first year of life unfold, from birth to baby steps. Even the cultural differences aren’t rubbed in our faces.

In the earthy, mud-hut village of Opuwo, Namibia, a baby lies around outside, with flies buzzing over him as part of the natural order; the rhythm of life is calm, quiet, anti-eventful. In Tokyo, by contrast, much of what we see happens in groups, with a baby girl bred to feel that she’s part of a tightly ? organized collective. In the hills of Mongolia, just outside Bayanchandmani, the baby we see gets wrapped up like a papoose right in the hospital, and he is often bound thusly; it’s restriction as a built-in physical comfort zone, and as a lesson in discipline. The American baby, raised in touchy-feely San Francisco, gets exposed to the most technology (at birth) and also to the most hyperactive coddling. As a result, perhaps, she looks the most touchingly perplexed.

Crying, peeing, grinning, crawling (there’s a brief crawling montage — the one such gimmick), the babies in Babies offer moments to cherish. Frankly, though, the film itself is kind of slack. I wish Balmès had found more scenes like the one in which the Japanese baby tries to shove a stick into a toy doughnut, falls on her back in wailing frustration, and then perseveres, and succeeds — it’s like watching the dawn of consciousness in two minutes. As the movie goes on, these fleshy little beings turn into?well, people. And that’s something to see. But Babies, without falsifying its subject, could have used a more soul-stirring sense of showbiz — that is, a riper display of infantile special effects. B

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