Movie Review: The Beginning of Life (2016)

The Beginning of Life is a Brazilian documentary that explores child development and argues for stronger community, for systems and institutions that support not just the child but the parents as well. Through brilliant cinematography, interviews with parents, educators and scientists who feel passionately about giving children the best possible world, and of course, close ups of babies and toddlers being adorable, The Beginning of Life emphasizes just how important it is to reflect on our children, our shared future.

It was difficult to hear anything over the sound of my ovaries exploding, but luckily a lot of the film was subtitled. Director and writer Estela Renner presents two acts. The first act coud be called “This is How They Grow.” Here, parents, teachers, and neuroscientists discuss how our young ‘uns absorb everything they encounter, and how critical play is during those earliest years. There is a strong focus on the environment, on how parents and teachers can nurture children’s curiosity and self-esteem. Viewers are told that toys are not as important as letting kids turn ordinary things into toys, which supermodel Giselle confirms by revealing that she has not bought Skylander for her child, and instead has him make Skylander cards. By the way, Giselle lives down the street from me, and by down the street I mean she occasionally spends time in Boston, therefore we are neighbors. I wonder if she wants me to be in her mom group, I could be the dumpy awkward one.

Anyway, Renner also concludes that the traditional family (one man! one woman! together, they form Voltron!) is not the only effective way to raise children to be good people. Gay couples, single parents, and adoptive parents do just as well, so long as love is there as the main ingredient.

Viewers are shown that tantrums, saying “no,” is part and parcel of growing up and recognizing a separate identity from the parent/s, and that this actually signals confidence on the part of the child. Children who say “no” are asserting independence, and I imagine being a pain in the butt is a happy bonus for them.

And then for the second act, Renner pulls off the kid gloves (GET IT?!?! BECAUSE THIS IS A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT CHILDREN, YOU SEE) and exposes the negative effects of poverty on children, which in my adopted state of Massachusetts means 15% of children, or over 200,000 kids in 2014 (source). Apparently, children coming from families in poverty hear 300,000,000 less words by age 4. Just kidding, it’s only 30,000,000 less. THIRTY MILLION LESS WORDS BY AGE FOUR. (Note: while the film says age 4, the original article about the word gap says age 3. PDF can be downloaded here.) And then we shift to the Fruitful Talent Centre in Kenya, where the kids don’t have parents, beds, or enough food! And then the kicker: a young girl in India, probably 10, who takes care of her two younger siblings, is asked, “What is your biggest dream?” and she responds with a smile, “I don’t have any dreams.”

Excuse me, invisible ninjas are cutting onions around me.

So the point is that the beginning of life is a series of key moments where we begin to emerge as strong, independent, ethical beings based on what’s been given to us. If we’re allowed to play freely by ourselves and with other children, and are engaged by and cared for by different adults, we learn to care for ourselves and others, to solve problems, to examine the world and maybe work on making it better. And if instead we are deprived, of words, of our rights to food, shelter, and health care, we get stuck in the same place – thus the generational cycle of poverty that keeps 1 billion children in strained circumstances and chronic stress (source).

The Beginning of Life does have a glaring flaw: the ending theme. The film concludes with the practically-obligatory “It takes a village” quote – because it absolutely does – and, possibly in case viewers were too busy sobbing inconsolably at the humanity of it all, we also get the “It Takes a Village to Raise Children” song, which is excruciatingly cheesy and clashes with the gentleness of the entire documentary.

That unfortunate soundtrack choice aside, The Beginning of Life hits all the right notes. Its emphatic message in the filmmaker’s steady hand is a celebration of humanity and all we can still become.

TL;DR: Terrific documentary—come for the babies, stay for the social message! 

This post brought to you by Japanese curry!