Don’t Count Out Babies!


Defying early box-office nay-sayers, Focus Features’ life-affirming documentary Babies opened over Mother’s Day weekend with significantly better ticket sales than originally estimated, thanks to what the website Box Office Mojo is calling (in the idiom of the movie beat) “a huge Mother’s Day bump.”

For the record, I love Babies; my review opens this way:

Everyone should see Babies. Even people who have cats instead of children should see Babies. … Directed by documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmès, who lives in Paris with his wife and three children, Babies is pro-life in the best possible sense: It is a celebration of new life, of love, of family, of the wonder of the world.

Other critics agree: The film scored positively at critical aggregation websites Rotten Tomatoes and—although not all critics shared the love. Here’s how Peter Sobczynski ( described the film: 

“Babies,” on the other hand, is a work that is so vapid and shallow that even the most devoutly Catholic viewers will find themselves agreeing that it never comes close to become a viable film.

Fascinating! There’s absolutely nothing “Catholic” about Babies in terms of content, yet a skeptical critic appeals specifically to Catholic audiences as the natural audience of the film to justify his opinion about the film’s “viability.” (Incidentally, Sobczynski says “on the other hand” in reference to a revolting horror film that also opened this weekend, an astonishing comparison made for reasons so disgusting that I can’t repeat them here.)

Speaking as a “devoutly Catholic viewer” and critic, I’m happy to decline Mr. Sobczynski’s invitation to agree with him: We seem to have very different ideas about the “viability” of films like Babies (and, who knows, perhaps of babies as well).

Most mainstream critics welcomed Babies with open arms. Here is A. O. Scott (The New York Times):

[I]f you love babies you will find it very hard not to love “Babies.” Is it that simple? I mean, who doesn’t love babies? … “Babies” just might restore your faith in our perplexing, peculiar and stubbornly lovable species.

For one of the best and most insightful reviews of the film, see my friend and fellow critic Jeffrey Overstreet’s review (Response). Jeff calls Babies “possibly this year’s most important movie,” writing:

This movie is a welcome relief: It shows us a world in which babies play an important role. That is to say—the real world. …

When was the last time you saw a film in which an infant was something more than comic relief, something better than a diaper-soiling inconvenience to adults? I can think of a few, but only a few.

If more artists would take children seriously in their work, depicting a world in which all human beings—older than 40, younger than 4—are created equal, we might begin to see children treated with greater care and compassion. We might be more careful with the world they’ll inherit. And we might be humbler, remembering just how dependent we were, once upon a time. We might realize that we will be dependent again on these rising generations, who will determine the shape of the world in which we’ll grow old.

But let’s face it: It’s easy to disregard what remains unseen. It’s easy to stop believing that human beings, in the earliest stages, out of sight and out of mind, are of any consequence.

(Don’t stop with that excerpt—read the whole thing!)

Despite my opening sentence, “everyone” didn’t come out to see Babies on opening weekend—but a lot more people came than originally estimated. Estimates placed Babies in a three-way race for 10th place with about $1.6 million. In fact, once actual results were tallied, it turned out that Babies had jumped 57 percent on Sunday, nailing the 9th slot for the weekend with closer to $2.2M. Here’s Box Office Mojo:

Thanks to a huge Mother’s Day bump, documentary Babies opened to $2.16 million, which represented the highest-grossing limited opening in over a year and a half. Distributor Focus Features’ marketing positioned Babies as a Mother’s Day event, and the picture did not disappoint on this front: while Babies fell outside of the Top Ten in its first two days, it experienced a 57 percent increase on Sunday to $1.09 million, which pushed it up to eighth place on the weekend chart. While Babies seems relatively high profile, it only opened at 534 locations, putting it just under the 600 theater threshold separating limited and nationwide releases. Babies’s opening is the best for a limited release since documentary Religulous debuted to $3.41 million at 502 theaters in Oct. 2008.

The question now is whether that “Mother’s Day bump” was a one-day spike, or whether it will deliver improved performance through word of mouth over the next several weeks, giving the film box-office “legs.”