With all the squirming and gurgling, the crowd was positively infantile at a swanky movie house one recent afternoon in Madison, Wis.
So was the action onscreen.
About 100 moms and a sprinkling of dads in the college town brought their babies, toddlers and preschoolers to a noisy, private screening of “Babies,” making their way past overstuffed leather chairs and gallery art hanging in the lobby at Sundance Cinemas.
Some couldn’t remember the last time they’d been to a movie, or when the chance might present itself again. Others had read about the young stars — Hattie, Mari, Bayarjargal and Ponijao — and wanted to share all the big-screen adorableness with their baby-loving kids.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Lara Miller of her 15-month-old son. “He sat in my lap and pointed and said baby. He loved the close-ups when they were a little older and they started to make sounds like him. It was lots of fun.”
Around the country, parents and their babies are popping up at viewing parties or in small groups for the feel-good movie, rated PG for “cultural and maternal nudity.” Many were unfazed by the advisory, considering their enthusiasm for breast-feeding. Some were more concerned about venturing into a movie theater for the first time with antsy members of the nap set.
“A goat. I see it! I’m a baby, too,” Kathy Dalton’s 2-year-old Jonah shouted at a screen in Salt Lake City, Utah. She had learned just the day before that she was expecting again, so she seized the moment as a teachable one for the soon-to-be big brother.
“As much as I can tell him they cry, they play, they crawl, I felt it was much more informative for him to see for himself,” she said.
There’s plenty of crawling, crying, playing, pooping, nursing, bathing, more playing and — bonus — cute cats, dogs, goats and cows to satisfy little fans in big-people seats, sippy cups and their mother’s breasts at the ready, just as the film portrays.
With no voice narration and a gentle pace, kids are able to focus on the movie’s far-flung baby action, from remote village life in Namibia to a high-rise in Tokyo, a farm in Mongolia to a hot tub in San Francisco.
“He observed what was happening, almost as if he were living through it at the moment,” said Dalton, who chose a 10 a.m. show when her toddler was well rested, but also to avoid getting shushed.
Ann Imig from Madison brought her 3-year-old son to what she considers a rare, non-animated opportunity.
“I was happy to have a cinema experience with my son that wasn’t terrifyingly loud or filled with startling imagery or quasi-off color humor, found more often than you’d expect in G-rated films,” she said.
The Madison screening was organized by Baby Bambino, a baby boutique and parent resource center co-owned by Alison Dodge, who attended with the youngest of her three children, 10-month-old Rocket.
“He did well. He liked the animals and he liked the scenes where the babies were really large. There were a lot of people, so the actual live babies were just as interesting.”
In New York City, an almost-walker teethed on a seat in a regular movie crowd heavy with kids on Mother’s Day soon after “Babies” opened May 7. Willing parents responded to questions from their kids about life without diapers in an African hut, or goats slurping bath water in Mongolia, without admonishments from fellow watchers.
A breast-feeding resource center gave away mommy swag bags to the first 50 who showed up for a private Los Angeles screening wearing their babies in carriers or slings.
The movie may not get the attention of nature’s kid-friendly blockbusters like the G-rated “March of the Penguins,” but French filmmaker Thomas Balmes soaks up the lives of three girls and a boy with a naturalist’s eye. The stars are Poni, the youngest of nine sisters and brothers in a Himba village near Opuwo, Namibia; Hattie, a blue-eyed girl from San Francisco who begins life attached to wires in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit; Bayar in Mongolia, who lays swaddled in his yurt as an infant, nonchalantly watching a rooster that hops on the bed; and beautiful Mari in Tokyo who sits on dad’s lap playing with a cell phone as he works on his computer.
They all eat, Poni sometimes sharing her mother’s breasts with another. They all get baths, Poni with a few extra squirts of breast milk on her face and Bayar splashing in a metal basin, basking in the sun without a flinch when a long-horned goat saunters up for a drink.
Similarities with the lives of their own kids is a big draw for parents.
“I like the part where she was nursing two babies. And the baby that peed up in the air,” said 4-year-old Justin, who watched with his own baby — year-old brother Alexander — and their mom, Tina Busch, in Madison.
In Aspen, Colo., Maureen Poschman took her twin 4-year-old girls. She accurately anticipated lots of questions, so they sat in the front row.
“They loved that all the kids had pets and that they were snuggling with them,” Poschman said, noting one scene when Bayar’s surprisingly passive cat is dragged across the floor by a rope around its neck. “We have cats and they’re quite gentle with them and they love dogs and all animals, so they giggled at the goat and they worried about the babies being rough with the animals.”
Would parents recommend the movie for other kids? Many said absolutely. Busch said yes, with caveats.
“If the parents openly communicate to their children about body parts and nursing,” Busch said. “I can see how it would be really uncomfortable for parents who aren’t ready to talk about penises and breasts.”