Film

Cinemadope: A New World

Babies on film

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013
photo courtesy of Focus Features
Ponijao, who lives in Namibia with her family, is one of four babies followed from birth to first steps in Thomas Balmes' Babies.

For nearly nine months now, people have been telling me to get some sleep. When you tell people that your wife is expecting, it seems to be the natural response, especially from anyone who has had kids of their own. I’ve tried to take the advice to heart, but between putting together cribs, installing car seats, and folding about a thousand tiny socks, sleep already seems like a luxury (and when you have twins on the way like we do, all those little tasks get doubled). But this week it all pays off—so while the CinemaDope family is taking a break to grow a bit, enjoy this movie roundup of all things baby. Even if you’re not expecting, they make for a great night on the couch. Next week we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

If you missed it on its first release, Thomas Balmès 2010 film Babies is one of the great modern documentaries that has helped reinvigorate the genre in the last few years. Based on an idea of producer Alain Chabat, Balmès’ film follows four babies from all over the world as they tackle the first hurdles of life on this varied Earth. There is Ponijao, from Namibia in Africa; little Bayarjargal, of Mongolia; Mari, who lives in Tokyo; and San Francisco girl Hattie.

More than many modern films in the genre, Babies hews closer to true documentary—viewers used to seeing lots of onscreen graphics, or being subtly (or not so subtly) influenced by a stylish soundtrack, may be surprised here to find themselves mesmerized less by the filmmaking and more by the simple wonder of what Balmès puts to film: the seemingly common yet endlessly new experience of our lives—first steps, the magic of first sounds becoming words, and that indescribable joy, for parents and children alike, of a baby’s first sense of itself as a part of some larger world.

Of course, it’s not just the nonfiction world that looks to babies for cinematic inspiration. Comedy in particular has long had a soft spot for kids, and the last half-decade or so has seen a spate of movies released that tap into the more varied parental experiences of our modern world. Jason Reitman’s 2007 film Juno was a surprise hit about expecting teen mom Juno (Ellen Page) who finds her child’s adoptive parents in the Pennysaver. But when the dad-to-be (Jason Bateman) has a midlife crisis and backs out of the relationship, it’s up to Juno, with the help of her supportive parents, to be the mature one.

A year later, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Baby Mama looked at a similar story from the other direction: Fey’s career-focused, middle-aged Kate Holbrook discovers she has an odd uterus (“it’s T-shaped,” her doctor says) that makes kids unlikely. To make it happen, she hires immature South Philly loudmouth Angie (Poehler) as a surrogate. Truth told, the story is pretty standard, but Fey and Poehler have good chemistry, which is livened up further by appearances by Steve Martin (as the New Age owner of a Whole Foods-like supermarket chain) and Sigourney Weaver as an aging but surprisingly fertile surrogacy agent. And while it’s no spring chicken, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Coen Brothers’ early classic Raising Arizona, which is probably the sweetest child-kidnapping story you’ll ever see.

But for my money, one of the best and most overlooked films about new parenthood in the last few years was Away We Go, a 2009 offering from Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall). Blending comedy and drama with a modern touch of melancholy, his film is the story of a young couple trying to decide where to settle down as they await the birth of their first child. To help them sort it out, Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) embark on a multi-leg journey to visit family and friends all over North America, encountering a wide variety of parenting styles—none of them what they picture for themselves. Mendes’ film is certainly the least traditional of the bunch, but it’s the one that has stayed with me the most, and the one I recommend first to friends.

Also this week: Amherst Cinema continues its collaboration with NEPR and jazz host Peter Sokolowski when it brings in The Jazz Films of Les Blank for a one-night show on Tuesday, Oct. 8. After an introductory live concert, Sokolowski will present two of Blank’s films: 1965’s Dizzy Gillespie, where the bebop icon shares his musical history; and 1978’s Always for Pleasure, an insider’s take on New Orleans’ unique musical gumbo. Stick around afterward for a discussion of the featured music and musicians.•

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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