Decades before we were deluged with a never-ending stream of “reality” TV shows, a British TV crew selected a group of 14 seven-year-old schoolchildren as documentary subjects, initially as a study of how social class impacted their upbringing. Every seven years since, a new installment has been filmed with the same subjects, all under the direction and narration of esteemed feature-film director Michael Apted. While Apted was just a young researcher on the original installment who took part in selecting the subjects, he’s been the lynchpin of the entire project for every subsequent film, taking such a personal approach that he’s also been the sole interviewer, in the process becoming a confidant for each of the subjects.
We’ve now reached the point in the series where each character’s revelations are tinged with a bit of dread, as the inevitable ravages of time are very clearly taking their toll on the subjects. I had a palpable sense of worry as each subject’s story began, hoping that death and serious illness had continued to spare the cast. Let’s just say the outcome isn’t perfect, but for the most part the subjects thankfully continue to be hale and hearty.
As they approach retirement age, and indeed have mostly all cut down on their career commitments, they’ve transitioned into a time of reflection rather than aspirations for the future. Subjects with children (and grandchildren) are focused on family, with one traditionally career-minded subject regretfully musing that he should have spent more time with them rather than putting in extra hours at the office. Even the wildcard Neil, who has struggled with mental issues and homelessness throughout his life, finally seems to be more at peace and maintains a stable home in this installment.
Although all of the subjects started their film journey in England, the production has become international as they matured and moved around. Film crews and Apted are on the ground in the U.S., Australia, France, and even Bulgaria this time around to follow the continuing adventures of the cast. The Australian footage is the most rewarding, as one of the men travels with his family from England to visit another subject and his family in Melbourne, two doddering old mates who started out as kids in adjacent beds in boarding school now looking on in pride at their families.
Apted’s line of questioning for this installment generally opens by asking the subjects if they believe the validity of the Jesuit motto that served as impetus for the project: “give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. Universally, the subjects agree that they clearly see the adults they would become in their original childhood footage. This being a British production, Apted also asks a few for their thoughts on Brexit, with all of them coming down clearly opposed, even one who originally voted in favor of the measure. It’s telling that regardless of their original and still current social classes (nobody seems to have changed lanes), they all feel that the positive Brexit vote was a railing against UK bureaucracy as a measure of frustration with the status quo, not really a plea to leave the EU.
Regrettably, the subjects have precious little time to share their current thoughts on much of anything else, as the film’s ongoing structure requires reviewing clips of all previous installments as a rounded summation of each subject, leaving only a few minutes to each person for actual 63-year-old updates. It’s understandable that archival footage is used to such wide extent in each film, as it absolutely helps to paint a full picture of each individual, but if there’s one shortcoming of those decades of history, it’s that we never really get to spend much time with the people as they are now.
One has to wonder what the endgame is for the series. My assumption is that we may only have one more installment to go, as 7 to 70 seems like a natural stopping point before mortality really begins to have an impact. It’s seemingly inconceivable to continue the series without Apted, who’s now approaching 80 and has forged such strong, trusting relationships with the subjects throughout their lives that he’s able to elicit more truthful, comfortable revelations than anyone else could ever hope to approach. Each installment has been a gift, and as we view clips through what now amounts to nearly entire lives of each subject, it’s natural to want more but also inevitable that this installment signals that we are near the end of this incredible project.