‘Babes’ Review: Ilana Glazer and Michelle Buteau Shine in Pamela Adlon’s Charming Maternal Romp

There are many rituals in Dawn (Michelle Buteau) and Eden’s (Ilana Glazer) decades-long friendship, but the most important one happens on Thanksgiving morning.

The best friends of Pamela Adlon’s charming feature Babes meet on that day every year to watch a movie. It can be any film, at any theater. What’s most important is that the two women, friends since they were 11 years old and now separated by no fewer than two trains on New York City public transit, make time for each other.

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For the most recent Thanksgiving, seemingly in 2023, Dawn and Eden meet on the Upper West Side for a 9 a.m. show. Dawn, pregnant with her second child, recently moved to the neighborhood with her husband Marty (Hasan Minhaj) and their toddler. Eden still lives in Astoria, the Queens neighborhood she and Dawn spent formative years in, and up until recently both called home. The heinous commute dividing them— four trains on weekends, holidays and, realistically, whenever the MTA decides to conduct repairs — doesn’t dampen their relationship, which is founded on a rare sororal intimacy.

Premiering at SXSW, Babes is an endearing portrait of friendship wrapped in a raunchy maternal comedy. It plays with the same kind of physical gags that defined Bridesmaids and Glazer’s Broad City, while sneaking in a radical notion of parenthood in America. Babes defies the isolated norms of the nuclear family and makes a case for shaping one’s life around friendship and extended community.

Adlon’s feature directorial debut bursts with a boisterous energy from its opening moments. Buteau and Glazer have natural chemistry, enhanced by their respective talents. Quick wit and a comfort with exaggerated physicality are trademarks of both performances, which excel on the comedic level and struggle more during the dramatic turns. The pair volley jokes with impressive agility, and each scene moves at the speed of an intense ping-pong match.

After Dawn and Eden purchase their tickets and their treats, they join the only other person in the city inclined to see a film on Thanksgiving morning in the theater. In a Goldilocks gag, Dawn and Eden have a hard time finding good seats. Each one of the plush red velvet chairs feels wet to the pregnant friend. As Eden gabs, the pair inch across and climb over rows in search of maximum comfort and no moisture. After a third attempt, they realize Dawn is in labor. Her water doesn’t break in the dramatic fashion of movies — it’s more a trickle than a gush, Eden notes with amused wonder.

A strength of Babes, written by Glazer and comedian Josh Rabinowitz (Broad City, The Carmichael Show), indeed lies in the detailed jokes about the anatomical feats of the body during pregnancy. Timing contractions, the pressure of a fetus against the pelvis, the mysterious fluids produced during labor and the almost mechanical way hospitals treat their patients are all mined for clever jokes.

The early scenes of Babes have a sketch-comedy feel, but the film eventually coalesces around a real narrative when Eden gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a struggling actor (Stephen James). Their meet-cute is a charmed encounter whose romance is emphasized by a dreamy aesthetic and editing style; the affair is short-lived because of a surprising but poorly revealed twist. Why Eden decides to keep the baby could have been made clearer, but her decision leads to humorous adventures throughout her pregnancy.

Here, again, Babes proves its comedic intelligence in how it demystifies the process around Eden’s gestation. Her visits to the obstetrician (John Carroll Lynch) are self-contained commentaries on what’s required to give birth, from changes in hormones to the size of the needle used for genetic testing of the fetus.

Although Babes nails its comedic swings, the film strains to build the narrative tension and stakes needed to land its more serious moments. Eden’s pregnancy forces her to confront her relationship to abandonment and heavy truths about her friendship with Dawn. Their bond and respective journeys underscore how isolating parenthood is in a country with no affordable housing, childcare or humane parental leave laws. While the new mother of two wrestles with postpartum depression and the guilt of needing a break from her kids, Eden finds herself without a steady anchor for most of her pregnancy.

Because Glazer and Buteau offer a convincing portrayal of intimacy, it’s disappointing when they only occasionally pull off the big emotional turns. Part of that comes from a screenplay that opts for laughs even when it means undercutting the weight of the drama. The film moves too briskly through Eden and Dawn’s arguments, missing opportunities to excavate the emotional lives of the characters. When we do get a glimpse of these conversations — like the one the two friends have in the final weeks of Eden’s pregnancy — it only bolsters Babes and its vision for a different kind of world.

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