Film Review: Navigating the unknown in ‘Babes’

Ilana Glazer (left) and Michelle Buteau in "Babes." (Photo courtesy NEON).
Ilana Glazer (left) and Michelle Buteau in “Babes.” (Photo courtesy NEON).

How do we not talk about this all the time??

In “Babes,” this is said by Eden (Ilana Glazer) in reference to the miracle of childbirth. She’s a little dumbfounded at this moment, having just given birth herself. She stares down at her baby, breathless at what the human body is capable of – she grew a person, for crying out loud! Then, a doctor tells her to start pushing again. 

This is the part of the movie where we might usually find out our protagonist is having twins, a fact somehow missed in the dozens of check-ups that she underwent to get to this moment in the first place. But not in “Babes.” No, the reason Eden needs to start pushing again is because she needs to push out the placenta. Her best friend Dawn (Michelle Buteau) leans over and says to her – and us – “They don’t tell you about this part.” 

That’s kind of the ethos of “Babes” in a nutshell. There aren’t too many movies about pregnancy, and, in particular, not too many raunchy comedies about the real nitty gritty of that experience. “Babes,” directed by Pamela Adlon in her feature debut and written by Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, not only dives into pregnancy and all the messiness that entails, but the particulars of female friendship at a certain stage in life that are often left undiscussed. The film’s broad comedy structure holds something a little more specific, its quirky humor and soft heart on full display. 

Eden and Dawn have been best friends since they were kids, their bond making it through absentee fathers, marriages, babies, and the like. After Dawn gives birth to her second child with her husband Marty (Hasan Minhaj), Eden has a clandestine meeting with a stranger on the train ride home. The stranger’s name is Claude (Stephan James), and Eden and Claude share a brief, passionate night together that results in Eden getting pregnant. When she chooses to keep the baby, her and Dawn’s relationship begins to strain under the pressure of both of their newfound responsibilities. 

In a lot of ways, “Babes” feels like a standard R-rated comedy, particularly in its construction. Gross out humor? Check. Funny side characters? Check. Random cameos (hello Darren Criss)? Check. But this tried and true structure can feel fresh when applied to a new kind of story. The film opens up with a sequence where Dawn goes into labor, heaving and groaning her way through a crowded restaurant while Eden serves as her hype man, assuring her the only reason everyone is staring is because they are in awe of her majesty. When they make it to the hospital, it’s all Eden can do not to ralph in the delivery room as the wonder of childbirth is tainted with the fact that a lot of women have bowel movements during the process. 

Once again, this is something that no one really warns you about, and “Babes” is interested in how these two best friends navigate those moments of surprise. That feeling of unpreparedness is set up from the beginning. When Dawn initially goes into labor, she brushes it off – her first labor took like, 25 hours after all. What’s the rush? But, as Dawn quickly learns, having two babies is quite different than having one. Buteau infuses Dawn with a real motherly warmth, something that Eden latches onto, having lost her own mother early and with a father who has trouble showing up for her. Sometimes, their relationship can feel less like a friendship and more like a parent and a child. When Eden tells Dawn of her decision to keep the baby, you can tell Dawn doesn’t necessarily think it’s a good idea, but keeps her mouth shut in the name of being supportive – entertaining Eden’s wild notions as she’s always done. 

This conflict leads to a plethora of funny moments – there’s a bit involving “The Omen” that I will be thinking about for quite some time – but as much as “Babes” is hilarious, it also doesn’t shy away from its tougher themes. It can be hard to be supportive when you don’t feel supported yourself. So much of “Babes” is centered around Eden, but Dawn’s side of the story holds the most complexity. In a quiet moment with her husband, she laments that she thought having a baby wouldn’t be as hard the second time around, the stress of work and family – and Eden – overpowering to the point of combustion. At the same time, Eden has never felt more alone as Dawn’s familial responsibilities take precedence over the found family they’ve built over the years. That schism between them leaves them both behaving poorly. When Dawn suggests Eden take a baby moon for one last hurrah before she gives birth, she treats it as her own getaway, more of a respite from her life than a celebration of Eden. At the same time, Eden suggests she and her baby move into Dawn’s basement. No one is thinking clearly. 

There’s something that happens when you’ve been friends for as long as these two have – you start considering each other as inevitable. You don’t think about drifting apart, because at some point it feels laughable. So this crossroads – one neither of them have ever considered even thinking about how to navigate – comes as a shock. Much like pushing out the placenta, these are the parts of life no one really talks about. But “Babes,” a comedy through and through, is all about the happy ending – we might not feel prepared for what’s to come, but we can navigate those transitions and all their sticky, thorny messes together.

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