It’s that time again — the “Up” series is back — and both the kids and the series are going strong. The latest installment, “56 Up,” is another worthy addition to this documentary catalog that illustrates the modern human experience through the stories of 13 Brits who, every seven years, share their lives in front of the movie camera.
Falling somewhere between anthropology and melodrama, the “Up” series began in 1964 with “7 Up,” a TV experiment designed to assess the impact of class on British schoolkids. Fourteen 7-year-old children were interviewed.
Revisiting those subjects every seven years, director Michael Apted has created an evolving canvas of lives being lived and a picture of how individual nature and common humanity combine to form inner character.
You don’t need to have seen the previous “Up” films to appreciate this one. Footage from the earlier docs fills you in.
This time, 13 of the original 14 subjects take part. At 56, they have done lots of living but aren’t ready for the rocking chair.
Sue, who was a financially struggling single mother a couple of films back, has climbed the administrative ladder at Queen Mary Law School.
Tony, who fulfilled his desire to become a jockey, now drives a cab. Lynn, who at age 7 wanted to work at Woolworth, became a librarian and remained one until budget cuts claimed her job.
Peter, who left the series after the political views he expressed in “28 Up” sparked an antagonistic response, has returned, promoting his folk band.
Neil, whose experiences with homelessness and mental illness caused many a viewer to worry, is now a Liberal Democrat councilor. (We still worry about him.)
Apted isn’t a penetrating interviewer (“Do you still have chemistry?” he asks a married couple). And the criticism subjects have for the series seems warranted.
John, a barrister who was a pre-preparatory-school boy in “7 Up,” tells Apted that an earlier film gave the world a highly false impression of his economic situation.
The film also suffers from its initial 1964 attitudes. Only one subject is nonwhite. Only four are female. Apted doesn’t explore how feminism has shaped the women.
But Apted brings an old-faithful quality and a long-caring hand to the movie, and his subjects, who are down-to-earth, private types, not red-carpet seekers, speak with affecting candor and reflection.
As they discuss everything from past mistakes to current priorities to the pride one feels when a daughter goes off to college, Apted affirms the series’ vitality as a modern tapestry of humanity and delivers an engrossing look at the everyday blips and occasional bangs that make up a life.
All of this inspires viewers to reflect seriously on their own lives. Few films do that.