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35 Up documents development to adulthood

35 Up
Directed by Michael Apted.
Brattle Theater, through March 19.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

and involving interviews with fourteen seven-year-old children from varying social classes within Britain.

The film, directed by Michael Apted, attempted to show through discussions with the children about their joys, fears, hopes, and dreams, that the different backgrounds of these children would urge them each on to very different destinies. After gaining popularity with the British public, 7 Up spawned multiple sequels consisting of previously filmed footage and additional interviews with the group at age 14 (7 Plus 7), 21 (21 Up), and 28 (28 Up). Now comes 35 Up, the latest installment in the fascinating series, with twelve of the original subjects still participating in the experiment. The result is an utterly fascinating film -- entertaining, touching, and immensely interesting -- which ranks as one of the better documentaries ever made and is sure to be one of the year's best films.

The primary theme of 35 Up is that the development of the children from age seven well into adulthood is one that could be fairly well predicted from the earliest interviews. One boy, Tony, is seen as a hyperactive child running through playgrounds and pummeling other boys. The boy explains to Apted that fighting is the most important thing in life, and that being a jockey is his one true ambition. At 14 and 21, Tony is indeed working with horses, and eventually he does become a jockey and even wins a race. Another boy, Bruce, proclaims that he is going to be a missionary in Africa where his girlfriend lives. At 35, he is not a teacher, not a missionary, but he has temporarily left Britain to teach in Bangladesh. Nick was first interviewed on the farm where he grew up and wished that he could become an astronaut. Not surprisingly, Nick goes on to study physics at Oxford and becomes an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

More interesting moments in the film are those that show seeming aberrations in the developments of personalities. Suzy is a woman who at 21 was a nervous chain-smoker who didn't want to discuss much of anything with Apted. By the time that she was 28, though, she was happily married and her cynicism had been replaced with a more friendly demeanor. Three boys from an exclusive preparatory school are shown at seven and fourteen to be as stuck-up and snotty as any number of stereotypes would suggest. But seven years later, one of the trio shows up to the interview looking more like a rock icon than a businessman-to-be. Seeing these people defy expectations and begin to move in a new direction has a liberating effect. But should those subjects whose personalities remain fairly constant be criticized for passively following a predetermined path or commended for remaining true to ideas they have nurtured for years? These questions, and many others raised by 35 Up, are as intriguing as they are unanswerable.

The format of 35 Up should come under some scrutiny of its own. Do the experiment's subjects behave differently in front of the camera each time? Or even more importantly, do they live their lives in a way that is in some way influenced by the notion that Apted will show up sooner or later to check up on their progress? In his latest interview, one of the participants and his wife claim that the project does make them reflect back on their past when contemplating the future, and even their present. Bruce admits that he sees the film as being about opportunities and the necessity of using them. An attitude such as this would seem to have some influence on his life's decisions. John, one of the three prep school alumni, describes the documentary as a "little pill of poison" that comes into his life every seven years.

Some of Apted's questions would certainly provoke such a critical reaction. After Paul says that the greatest aspect of his life is that he has realized all of his ambitions at one time or another -- he won a race as a jockey, he has acted as an extra in a Steven Spielberg film, and he has owned a pub for a period of time -- Apted reminds him that in each of those cases, he "didn't really pull it off." And when Bruce admits that at thirty-five, he still hasn't had a long-term relationship, Apted says, "You're getting on a bit. Are you a bit worried?"

What sets 35 Up apart from its predecessors is that with the group now in their mid-thirties, many are losing parents and gaining children, and the links from generation to generation become evident. There are many touching scenes in which men and women talk about the love they had for their parents and the lessons they have learned from lost relatives. Apted also shows footage of children as often as possible. By showing teenagers in the Bangladesh schools where Bruce teaches and babies in a Bulgarian hospital which John visits, comparisons are drawn between the backgrounds of these young people and the backgrounds of the lives examined in the film. Will the children of these less fortunate nations have the chance to develop to their potential, as most of the 35 Up group has?

This childhood theme climaxes in the documentary's transcendent concluding study of Neil. When he was a boy, Neil thought that he would be an astronaut or a coach driver. The most important thing to the young boy was to travel, and as a homeless adult at age twenty-one, he was traveling aimlessly across Britain. At 28, he has temporarily settled down in an isolated apartment complex, but he is still a disturbed and depressed individual. When asked if he would like to one day have children, Neil answers that he would never find a woman who could cope with his demanding personality. Neil also says that even if he did eventually marry, he would still be afraid to have children, afraid to have unhappy kids, afraid that children inherit these things from their parents.