At seven, their lives were lightly sketched canvases, open to possibility, bright with optimism and limitless space to dream. At each successive seven-year checkpoint, the world has moved in with a heavy brush, filling in the burnt fingers and broken hearts and closed doors and lowered ceilings, along with love and family, career and contentment. In other words, life.
And now the little tykes of Michael Apted’s extraordinary documentary series are 63, thinking about retirement, doting on grandchildren, closer to the exit than the entrance.
If you’re not familiar with Apted’s unique work of cinema sociology, this is a good place to climb on board. The series began with Seven Up! in 1964 as a black-and-white study for television of the hopes and dreams and daily lives of 14 little schoolchildren, 10 boys and four girls (Apted now regrets the imbalance) aged 7, from different schools and walks of life and layers of the British class system. There was no grand plan in mind at that point, but the program was a surprise hit. Seven years later, Apted (who served as researcher on the first one for director Paul Almond) was approached about directing a follow-up, and the rest is history.
This ninth iteration catches up with 11 of the original 14. (One dropped out after 21 Up, another declined this film after having participated in the rest, and a third recently died. But a fellow who had left the project after 28 Up has opted back in, to promote his new band.) By and large, they seem a reasonably well and happy lot, although one man has been homeless and is still somewhat unsettled, and another, now a university professor in the American Midwest, has just been diagnosed with throat cancer.
Apted — whose directing credits include such diverse entries as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, a Bond movie, and a lot of television — mixes in clips from all the past episodes, and takes stock of how and where his subjects are today. There’s an easy, familial comfort between Apted and the group. They tease him, they find fault with him, they open up to him, and they reflect on their lives and what this series has meant to them.
The original premise of this project was inspired by a maxim attributed to the Jesuits: “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I will give you the man.” The participants reflect on this idea, and find some truth to it. This suggests that maybe those 7-year-old canvases were not quite as open and limitless as they might have seemed back then.