Nearly half a century has passed since the Up Series first focused its lens on 14 wide-eyed subjects — then, seven-year-old children (10 boys, four girls) growing up in 1960s Britain. Originally started as an ethnographic study to track the socioeconomic effects on the country’s youth, the children spoke of their boundless dreams and expectations for the future that lie ahead of them. Since then, veteran filmmaker Michael Apted has revisited each individual every seven years to document what paths their lives have taken. Now in its eighth installment, with 56 UP Apted continues to helm this revolutionary — and still resoundingly poignant — documentary series that captures an immersive real-time portrait of humanity.

In his own words, Apted admits that the series is a bit of an enigma from a storytelling standpoint. “21 Up was full of hope, 28 was about children and responsibility, 35 was concerned with mortality when some were losing parents, and 49 had a sense of disappointment with lives maybe not fully achieved.” 56 Up finds the not-so-young, yet oh-so-wise adults reflecting on midlife and the effects of growing up as the world watched. With this episode, the series has reached a point where it is no longer about the singular subjects, but the lives they have built, and the people and families that fill those lives.

Having been with them for the entire journey, it is Apted’s gracious handling of each unique story that is the real key in the delivery of this film. That is especially noticeable in the way he has adapted his tried-and-true formula to accommodate new and old viewers coming in at drastically different points in the story. With 49 years worth of material at his fingertips, he masters this practiced and perfected blend of archival recap to illustrate where they have been and new footage of where they are now — making it easy for anyone to feel part of the story.

As these scenes cut between fresh-faced kids and their visibly aged counterparts, a symphony of maturation and childish wonder emerges. By witnessing their gleeful grins and cracking voices clash with the hardened but happy adults they are today, Apted creates a vivid back and forth between the oppositions we all face in life: exciting prospects vs. dashed dreams, weary outlooks vs. satisfying realities.

These juxtapositions are most striking when used to illuminate just how far each journey has been. Take Neil, who, as a boy, was giddy and joyful within the confines of his suburban life. However, when Apted caught up with him at 21, he had dropped out of school, and was homeless and wandering the English countryside. By 42, he had gathered some stability and would enter town politics by 49. Today, he also works with the church, a drastically altered path from the one his 14-year-old self predicted when he questioned if he would ever have faith.

The beauty of this particular cinematic endeavor lies in these moments that allow a growing self-reflexivity to shine through. For instance, how Apted brings together footage of Neil’s uncertainties about life at 21, with images of his life at 56. Hearing a homeless Neil tearfully express that he “can’t see any immediate future at all” is made all the more powerful by cutting to a newscast of him running for political office or interacting with his congregation. Or when Sue tells the story of how she met her fiancé of 14 years, while Apted cuts back to one of their first dates (which he had captured during his visit with her for 42 Up). Or Peter, whose testimonials at 28 tell why he was ready to leave the series, only to return at 56 with his wife to promote their country band, The Good Intentions.

Even the subjects themselves turn the tables on the series at times, explaining how they hold resentment for all the exposure and scrutiny it has brought them through their formative years and beyond (in Britain, they are household names). One subject, Charlie, quit after 21 Up due to its effect on his life, and all references to him have since been removed. Others, like Suzy and Nick (who appear as a joint interview in this episode) find the formula of coming back to shoot their lives for a few days every seven years to be an inaccurate depiction of who they are beyond those days. And in the vein of full disclosure, Apted doesn’t exclude these moments of tension, and the film is better for it. For all their reservations, their candidness acts as a diegetic disclaimer for audiences. The subjects are weary of the validity of their representation, and if we, as the audience, understand that, we can gain an even more immersive trip inside their thinking.

Yet, even with these doubts, many of them feel as though this series is a part of the lives they have built. “I have some sort of loyalty to it. It’s like reading a bad book. You still want to see it through,” laughs Suzy, who vowed to quit after 49 Up, but says she just can’t let it go. Confessions like these make it clear that just as they have grown and matured, so has the series, which is undeniably a driving force in their lives — a connecting interval that bonds them with their former selves and with each other.

As we survey and recognize the increasing wrinkles and receding hairlines of each subject, so, too, can we appreciate the visual styles of the decades the series has weaved its way through. Starting with the black and white footage of 1964, each entry becomes a showcase of decade-specific hairstyles and trends, as well as the ever-changing cinematic technology that captured each stop along the way. As such, there is a certain irony in the fact that the more crisp the picture gets, the more worn their bodies become.

However, regardless of whether the footage is coated in black and white or sharpened with high definition, it’s hard to deny that the true value of this longitudinal tale does not lie solely on the shoulders of those depicted within its frame. The Up Series and its subjects has crafted a timeline — a continuum of sorts — on which both seasoned and new viewers can bring their own experiences and plot them in relation to those onscreen. The reason those 14 children were chosen in 1964 was because they represented the everyman (or woman) on all points of the social spectrum, and that still rings true. As he laughs along with Suzy about what this series has brought them and cost them, Nick is adamant in his belief that, “It’s not a picture of Nick and Suzy. It’s a picture of everyone.”

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Featured image: Tony at age 49, as seen in “56 Up,” a film by Michael Apted. A First Run Features release. Photo Courtesy of: First Run Features.