Doc of the Day: 21 Up Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: 21 Up

Posted in Days of Docs by - August 20, 2012

Michael Apted revisits the lives of people he’d previously talked to seven years earlier. Day One of Up Week.

Dir. Michael Apted, 1977, 100 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

Welcome to Up Week here at Days of Docs. Every day, I will be viewing another installment of Michael Apted’s seminal documentary series. In 1964, Seven Up! was released, introducing viewers to 14 seven-year-old British children. The kids all came from different social strata and life situations, and the intent was to create a portrait of youth in the UK, and to speculate on where they might be headed. Seven years later, the filmmakers caught up with those same children, now aged 14, with 7 Plus Seven. And in 1977, they returned again to talk with the kids, now no longer kids.

That is the very simple yet ingenious premise of this series, that Apted and his crew would have a reunion with the 14 subjects every seven years. They would see where life had taken them in the meantime. The movies have been released on time ever since, with 56 Up released this year. It would form a nice bit of symmetry, if I could review each film for each day of the week, but unfortunately, I’d previously seen Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven. So we’re starting with this one.

Honestly, it’d been so long since I saw 7 Plus Seven that seeing the characters again might as well have been seeing them for the first time. Fortunately, clips from the previous films are used to introduce each person, and remind us of where they were when last we saw them. As one might expect when seeing how people go from 14 to 21, their lives have changed rather significantly.

The quote at the top of this review appears throughout the series, are refers to the idea that the class structure in Britain is so rigid that one can tell how a child will turn out simply by knowing what environment they’re born into. If there’s any point in their lives where these subjects can prove the adage wrong, it’s this one. Yet they seem to not really be on any track to doing so. Andrew, Charles, and John, three upper class boys first interviewed in their prep school, are well on their set path of higher education. The only deviation from the plan they had at seven is that Charles isn’t going to Oxford. Of the four girls (there were far too few girls included in the “study”), two are already married. Nick, though, he grew up on a small farm, is doing quite well for himself, going to Oxford to study physics, so good on him.

If I had to pick a “favorite” at this point, it’d probably be Nick. Originally an incredibly shy boy in the first two films, he now seems to have gained a bit of confidence (as well as shaggy 70’s locks). If I’d pick one to be most concerned for, it’d be Neil, who was originally a terrifically vivacious kid, but is now a squatting college dropout. It’s interesting how the series not just makes you sympathize with the characters, but almost builds a relationship between you and them, the way that generally only a television show can (yes this is technically a TV show since each installment premieres on TV, shut up). I want to see where all these people end up next.

I’d probably have been even more affected by 21 Up than I already was had I more recently watched the first two films. It’ll be interesting to experience what is essentially the entire lives of these fourteen people over the course of just five days. A lot can change in seven years. The person I was at 15 would scarce recognize me now. The Up series is a cinematic experiment unlike any other, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

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Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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