Advertisement

‘Babes’ Review: Pamela Adlon Delivers an Unapologetically Raw Take on Pregnancy and Female Friendship

When Judd Apatow and the boys make an R-rated pregnancy comedy, they call it “Knocked Up.” But when “Broad City” co-creator Ilana Glazer and stand-up comic Michelle Buteau try their hand at the same subject, the every-bit-as-raunchy result comes with a far classier title: “Babes.”

That pun is just one of the movie’s many acts of irreverent reclamation, as helmer Pamela Adlon — making a confident switch to feature directing after seminal small-screen contributions to “Louie” and “Better Things” — and her stars de-objectify a label used by dudes, slapping it on themselves. The cheeky term applies to both lifelong amigas Eden (Glazer) and Dawn (Buteau) and the infants they spend most of the movie incubating. These babes are making babies, and you might be surprised just how much comedy there is still to be milked from that seemingly universal (but still widely underexamined) subject.

More from Variety

Unveiling the still-unrated laffer at the SXSW Film Festival, Adlon delivers an unapologetically crude homage to motherhood, presented here as the awe-inspiring phenomenon by which a human grows another human inside her body. How can something so beautiful be crude, you wonder? Co-writers Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz (a fellow “Broad City” vet) spill as many perinatal secrets — and secretions — as they can think of, obsessing over practically every bodily fluid women produce, except tears.

This modern-day “women’s picture” is no weepie, mind you. It’s “Bridesmaids”-level funny at times (to cite another SXSW-launched comedy), though it lacks the sharp psychological insights that made that film a classic. If anything, Bechdel test-acing “Babes” errs on the side of being too affirmational. Any time another movie might have posed a challenge to the characters’ success, this one steamrolls said obstacle. Politically, that’s a powerful statement: “Babes” won’t let self-esteem issues, abortion laws, deadbeat fathers or internalized sexism slow it down. Dramatically, however, it’s a disaster. The movie’s relentlessly positive attitude means preemptively eliminating every potential conflict.

Some might argue that BFFs experiencing back-to-back pregnancies is eventful enough for any movie. But is it though? “Babes” opens with Dawn’s water breaking during a trip to the movies. Where a lesser friend might have panicked, Eden keeps her calm, honoring her (hungry) pal’s wish to skip the hospital in favor of a fancy restaurant. This baby’s coming one way or another, and the folly of trying to squeeze in a sushi feast as the contractions accelerate makes for an unforgettably original and howlingly funny sequence. It won’t be the last.

Eden is convinced she’s the “world’s best bestie” for always being there for her friend. But once Dawn has pooped out baby number two (a colorful description suggested by the movie’s body-function focus), Eden proves less available than her physically and emotionally exhausted friend would like. Turns out, she has a pretty good excuse for being distracted: On the epic shlep home from the hospital — a three-transfer subway ride long enough to meet-cute, flirt and form a deep connection with a charming stranger (Stephan James) — she winds up having an unprotected one-night stand.

For reasons better left unsaid, he ghosts her. And for reasons Eden probably should have anticipated, she winds up pregnant. Marriage (to Hasan Minaj’s superhumanly understanding hubby) and motherhood (to a high-maintenance 4-year-old) have made Dawn mature. Eden hasn’t quite caught up yet — a disconnect that strains their friendship slightly, though the movie’s too busy being supportive to let them stay angry at one another for long.

In the spirit of solidarity, Dawn swears she’ll stand by Eden no matter what her friend decides. To her surprise, Eden wants to keep the baby. (“Babes” believes in a woman’s right to choose. In Eden’s case, the choice is certainly more interesting when this ill-prepared, childish-minded single woman opts to have the kid.) What follows is a consistently outrageous tour through the joys of pregnancy, touching on the things society has conspired to keep hidden: the insatiable horniness, the crippling cramps, the nasty-yet-natural biological surprises.

“They don’t tell you about this part,” Dawn says when Eden realizes she still has to deliver the afterbirth. Turns out, there’s a lot they don’t tell you. Like the explicit adult equivalent of a Judy Blume book, “Babes” helps to demystify taboos about the female body — a goal for which comedy proves an ideal tool. Adlon welcomes vulgar dialogue (e.g., “I’m going to go wash my [bleep] because she’s [bleep]ing dank”), but resists getting graphic, leaving the visuals up to audiences’ imagination. Supporting actor John Carroll Lynch’s balding OB-GYN patiently explains a few things. But Adlon obviously delights in building set-pieces around potentially messy processes that a century-plus of man-made movies have been too queasy or polite to depict.

As it happens, co-writer and star Glazer explored another dimension of the pregnancy experience with 2021 fertility thriller “False Positive” (a loathsome riff on the “mommy brain” phenomenon). “Babes” is infinitely better, drawing its comedy from lived experience, as opposed to pregnancy-related paranoia. With Adlon there to spot them, Glazer and Buteau trust-fall into their respective parts, potentially unlikable qualities and all. At times, the pair get so filthy, you may not believe your ears. But strength, as the saying goes, comes from the mouth of babes.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.