Parental Advisory Movie Review (films about families but not family movies): 56 Up – The latest edition on the landmark documentary series offers a wonderfully engaging look at being 50-something.

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The new documentary 56 Up is the latest installment in the impressively long-running Up Series of documentaries that Britain’s Granada Television started in 1964 with 7 Up. A fore-bearer to today’s Reality TV, these documentaries have followed a set of people (originally 14 kids) beginning at the age 7 (an age inspired by the famous quote: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”) and returning at 7-year intervals.

Not only is this a remarkable cinematic project, but these documentaries are remarkable films too – with 56 Up being no exception. The film does a wonderful job balancing the personal portraits of the participants (this edition includes 13 of the 14 original participants agreed to be filmed – the most since 21 Up) with showing something of the society at large.   

While the original children chosen came from a cross-section of early ‘60s British culture (although there is only one non-white participant), they don’t come off as stereotypes – at least to American viewers. While the people range from working class through middle class to more well-to-do, they mostly just feel like folks living their lives. There is little sense of the people performing for the camera, unless you count Peter who admits to participating in order to promote his band (his folk-rock outfit The Good Intentions actually has a rather good sound).

Part of the subject’s comfortableness with the filmmakers undoubtedly is due to the fact that director Michael Apted (who also has made films like Gorillas in the Mist, Coalminer’s Daughter and James Bond’s The World Is Not Enough) worked on 7 Up and has directed all the other ones. Several of the participants do remark, however, that the films give only a partial portrait of them. One woman, Suzy, comments to her friend, and fellow Up subject, Nick that she has “a ridiculous sense of loyalty (to this documentary series) even though I hate it.”

They actually don’t have much to be concerned about since everyone is presented in pretty positive light. In fact, one of the joys of 56 Up is that these people (old friends to regular series viewers) basically have achieved a certain level of contentment in their lives. While about half the people have been divorced, most of them have either remarried or are in relationships. Several others have enjoyed long marriages. It is heartwarming, for example, to see that Tony (a colorful East-Ender who once dreamed up being a jockey but has become a cabbie) has worked through his marital troubles and still is with the wife of over 30 years.

One fascinating quality of the Up documentaries is how they utilize footage from the prior films. Besides letting viewers (first-timers or regular viewers) get a sense of these individuals as well as creating a quick montage of how people change and evolve over the years. Neil, for example, was a homeless wanderer at 28 and now he is a small town politician; however, the social awkwardness of his younger days is still part of him today. Suzy, who was sullen, chain-smoking young woman in 21 Up into an article woman with a husband, children and, what appears to be, a nice life.

56 Up, like its earlier installments, holds a charmingly old fashion documentary quality. There aren’t any splashy TMZ moments or the tawdriness of the Real Housewives, Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo. While this might sound too reserved and too British, the terrific documentary succeeds because of its universality – by just showing regular people trying to survive with what life throws at them, the good and the bad.

First Run Features’ 56 Up will be screening at six Southern California cinema starting on Jan. 25

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