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49 Up

(2006) *** 1/2 Unrated
135 min. First Run Features.

42 years ago, a British documentary series took inspiration from the Jesuit maxim "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." A team that included Michael Apted rounded up seven-year-olds from a variety of backgrounds and interviewed them about their impressions and expectations about life. As Apted became a successful filmmaker, he continued to revisit the children, in telefilms titled 7 Plus Seven, 21, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and now 49 Up.

Each of the films is a time machine, juxtaposing thoughts and events from years before with current developments. Obviously, since the original seven-year-old footage is limited, its repetition loses some impact with each film, but perhaps it gains as much in poignancy with the growing gap between the seven-year-olds and their post-midlife selves. Though less extreme, the Up series suggests a real-life Truman Show, with subjects sometimes reluctantly allowing their lives to be recorded on film.

Apted's also canny enough to acknowledge the impact of the films on his subjects ("every seven years, a little pill of poison is injected..."" says one). One woman ineffectually argues with Apted about her portrayal and how the filmmaker's perception colors the stories he's shaping into a documentary narrative. Though she can only be correct, her self-defense is so puny that we're reminded who has the least perspective about our own lives: ourselves. They say time will tell and truth will out, and though rash conclusions about any one individual would be foolhardy (given the severe limitation of Apted's time constraints in each film), the films are cause for reflection, both for the subjects and the viewers.

Apted examines class issues and parenting while focusing on career and the character of marriage. Most of the boys and girls of Seven Up! are now parents, and several are grandparents, so the films have begun passingly to observe the next generation of kids maturing. What else do these men and women have to show for themselves? Homes they've acquired and refurbished and decorated are a common source of pride; nevertheless, few can claim their ambitions have been satisfactorily met (one man saw years of scientific research proven useless).

Though at least two men express political ambitions, it's a third, once homeless man who's ironically achieved them. The literal poster boy for 49 Up, Nick demonstrates the most dramatic lifepath, through hell and back. No earth-shattering revelations here, but the film is full of quiet profundities about the course of life and the impact of aging on perception of the world. In one strangely affecting reminder of time's passage, one subject's tour of his yard allows Apted to record the growth of trees. As Nick and his everyday fellows prove, hope springs eternal.

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