‘Babes’ Turns New Motherhood Into One Long, Funny, Gross Raunch-Com

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Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer in 'Babes.' - Credit: Neon
Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer in 'Babes.' - Credit: Neon

A female colleague once said that all movies about pregnancy fall under the category “body horror,” regardless of whether they’re a horror film or not. When I naively asked if that was true, she replied: Dude, have you ever been pregnant? Check, and mate. Pop culture’s overall view regarding bringing new life into the world as a simple, follow-the-manual miracle has stuck even into the 21st century: You get an adorable baby bump, gotta rush to the hospital, labor can be hard, and then [pop] out comes a newborn. Everything’s happily-ever-after from there. Not surprisingly, the reality is way more complicated, literally and figuratively messier, and emotionally all over the map. That’s not even taking into account the first postpartum year. Put that IRL experience on film, and the whole shebang could easily fall under the descriptive “Cronenbergian.” Or it could make a sudden left turn into the territory of a raunch-com.

This is where Babes dares to tread, and you can feel how it wants to shock viewers out of their comfort zones regarding every part of nurturing the fruit of the womb. The feature directorial debut of Pamela Adlon — comic genius, groundbreaking TV showrunner and the brains behind Better Things, which similarly debunked myths around motherhood — and written by Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, this take on the agony and ecstasy of childbearing doesn’t shy away from recognizing how mindblowing the whole thing is. “I’ve grown a body inside my body!” one of the two main characters says late in the film, her eyes wide with wonder. “How are we not talking about this all the time?!” But the movie also wants to drag into the light the stuff we don’t talk about when we talk about pregnancy, i.e. some of the nastier aspects that accompany a mother-to-be’s changing chemistry, physique and mindset. It’s body horror with belly laughs.

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Eden (Glazer) and Dawn (Michelle Buteau) have been best friends since grade school, and consider themselves sister from another mother. The former teaches yoga in fourth-floor walk-up in Queens, and lives the carefree life of a single thirtysomething woman. The latter is a dentist, has a three-year-old son and is about to give birth to her second child. Scratch that: Dawn is currently giving birth to her second child while she and Eden are on their traditional Thanksgiving-morning movie date. After a quick pre-partum feast at a fancy restaurant — where Dawn has Eden looking up her skirt to check dilation every 30 seconds — the duo make a beeline for the maternity ward. Dawn’s husband (Hasan Minhaj) is crowing about becoming a dad once more; Mom is screaming for him not to touch her; Eden is both genuinely fascinated and affectionately horrified by how her bestie has just involuntarily shit all over her newborn as its being delivered.

That’s the mix of ingredients that make up Babes‘ comedic recipe: celebratory, raw, affectionate, proudly gross as fuck, brutally honest, sentimental, scatological and gleefully subversive in the way it punctures myths about new motherhood. After getting kicked out of her friend’s hospital room, Eden heads home on the subway. On the ride, she meets Claude (If Beale Street Could Talk‘s Stephan James). He’s an actor who just come from a shoot, and dressed in a burgundy suit with a bowtie, looks “like a waiter from the Great Depression.” (The sheer amount of one-liner bullseyes per capita is beyond impressive.) They bond over a mutual love of Street Fighter, the G train and getting tested for STDs by the same twin doctors on 43rd St. The two hook up, and then Eden never hears from him. There’s a reason he’s M.I.A., but before we find that out, she discovers she’s pregnant. Great, she thinks. Dawn can show me the matriarchal ropes. Her friend has her own issues, however.

Adlon knows how to walk that fine line between sweet and vulgar, which comes in handy here since Glazer and Rabinowitz’s script is determined to milk every ounce of humor out of every ounce of bodily fluid that may be spilled, squirted or secreted by expectant moms. She’s also great with ensembles, making sure that smaller roles filled out by John Carroll Lynch (as an obstetrician with chronic hair-loss issues), twin comics Keith and Kenneth Lucas, and Oliver Platt get a scene or two to give their characters some depth or, at the very least, a few good punchlines. Minhaj, in particular, has to do some heavy lifting with his endlessly supportive, irritatingly invested dad to keep him from being a one-note wonder, but he’s given the space to do so; you can sense him adding in color, shape and personality to what might have easily — too easily — become a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Spouse.

But this is really a two-woman show, and Babes is at its best when its basically just Glazer and Buteau hashing out the storied shared histories, rocky roads and long-held grudges that are part of any legacy relationship. Both are remarkably skilled comedians, able to be slapstick physical or screwball verbal at a moment’s notice; they each give as good as they get, and their fire-and-ice chemistry keeps the film moving over a number of speed bumps and lapses of logic. (Glazer’s character is confused by having to push out a placenta — “They don’t tell you about that part” — but given she’s witnessed her friend delivering her second child, wouldn’t she have known about an afterbirth? Even if her grasp of things like being able to get pregnant on your period is established as so-so at best?) On their own, you can feel the actors respectively leaning into their character tics, sometimes to their detriment. Together, however, they sync up like a raunch-com Voltron. Who better to trade banter about gaping vaginas, the unclassifiable dampness of one’s second-trimester nether regions, the lack-of-lactation blues, and uncontrollable bowel movements in the O.R.?

It’s as much a movie about female friendships as it is about motherhood, and that aspect — more than the fact that this is a comedy with female leads — is what makes the “Bridesmaids but for babymaking” vibe that Babes is aiming for feel like more than just a superficial comparison. Like its predecessor, Adlon, Glazer and Buteau’s film is a love letter to the ride-or-die relationships forged by women over decades. But that doesn’t mean that this won’t get real about codependency issues, the occasional disparity in maturity levels (Eden’s apartment looks like a collegiate bachelor pad, complete with jukebox and multiplex-level popcorn stand), and the way that the closest of people can still grow apart. You get the sense that, as much as all three of them mined their own experiences with motherhood for this take-no-prisoners, they’re also pouring a lot of their personal feelings and real-life arguments into these sequences as well. Even more than the gloriously gross-out stuff, designed for big laughs and OMG body-horror reactions, it’s the blunt, unfiltered way they treat the ties that bind these two women that sticks with you. The humor is hormonal. Everything else is pure heart.

(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)

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