December 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

42 Up

Current Status
In Season
134 minutes
Michael Apted
First Run Features
Drama, Documentary

A peek at the James Bond director’s better movie

You know those stop-motion movies of flowers bursting into bloom? How would you feel if you could see the same thing happen with a human being? What would watching a boy or a girl grow, in the space of a jump-cut, from the age of 7 to 42 say about who we are versus what we become? What would it say about childhood dreams versus adult compromises, about optimism and cynicism — about life itself?

It’s not a fantasy. It’s ”42 Up,” the latest installment in director Michael Apted’s unparalleled documentary look at 14 men and women. Back in the early ’60s, Apted was the cameraman on a BBC documentary about a group of 7-year-olds from all walks of life: poor, privileged, in-between. Seven years later, he returned as director and interviewed them again, going back when they were 21, 28, 35 — and now 42. ”42 Up” opened in U.S. art houses (it will be available on video soon, as ”28 Up” and ”35 Up” already are) the same week Apted’s slightly more commercial directing gig, 007’s ”The World Is Not Enough,” did. One of the two will have a lasting impact — and somehow I don’t think it’ll be the Bond flick.

”42 Up” hews to the same format as the earlier films: We visit the subjects one by one, cutting back and forth between the interviews they have made at various stages of their life. As a cynical 21-year-old, upper-class Suzy sneers that she doesn’t much like children; cut to her at 28, happily bouncing a baby on her knee. Similarly, we see 7-year-old Symon in a children’s home; as a 28-year-old glowing with the thought that, unlike him, his five children have a father; and at 42, divorced, happily remarried, but gnawing over the notion that he has repeated his dad’s abandonment.

The most dramatic of these figures, as anybody who has seen earlier ”Up” installments knows, is Neal: the vivacious, imaginative 7-year-old who grew into a moody, homeless adult teetering on the edge of sanity. At 35, he was barely hanging on; at 42, astonishingly, he has clambered back into the land of the living — in no small part thanks to the friendship of one of the other subjects, the shy, saintlike teacher, Bruce. Still eccentric, still living on the dole, Neil is nevertheless a twice-elected councilman for the district of Hackney; that his stammered, 21-year-old hope to someday go into politics has turned true is almost unbearably moving.

But almost all of the people here are like that, in their quiet, quotidian way. ”42 Up” shows us life as we are scared to think about it — compressed, foreshortened, moving faster than it’s supposed to. I can imagine a teenager watching this film and getting deeply depressed: Is this all that’s going to happen to me? Babies, love handles, lowered expectations?

And yet, for someone who’s the same age as the interview subjects, I walked out of ”42 Up” carrying more hope than from any of the previous installments. The waists are broader, yes, but so is the perspective, and almost all of the people here possess — and articulate — a measure of peace that is startling when you consider the daily battles they wage. At least, it’s startling until you consider your own life in Apted’s unflinching long view. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that we should take grace where we find it — and that there’s always some where we least expect it.

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