21 Up (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Certainly the most complex installment of the first three because the original former seven-year-old subjects are now adults, director Michael Apted is now able to ask difficult questions directly, sometimes out of thin air, and capture the joys and sadness in raw form that comes with the trials and tribulations of early adulthood.
Perhaps the biggest shock is Neil, son of two teachers, who was once full of energy and vitality when he was seven. In the first film, he was one of my favorite children to watch interacting with a friend from school, the director, and the camera because I was able to relate with his exuberance. Twenty-one-year-old Neil is like a completely different person, a shell of child who appeared to have a real chance of being the happiest out all the fourteen kids even though he may not be as privileged as some of the others—like Suzi, Charles, Andrew, and John. Here, Neil is significantly more subdued and the questions he is asked are designed to give us an idea of what possibly went wrong.
One of the most wonderful qualities of the series is its ability to hone in and explore change. The story of the former aspiring jockey, Tony, is akin to a life cycle of a butterfly—at least taking only the first three films into account. As a child, he appears very rough, sort of unlikable, one of those kids who gets into a lot of trouble at school for not following rules. As a teenager, he was so dead set in becoming a jockey, very focused and highly serious, one gets the impression that if he failed to reach his goal, it would just ruin him.
Well, he did not become a jockey… and yet he appears to be perfectly content. In fact, it looks like he is the happiest he’s ever been. He seems to have a better grasp of who he is in that he is able to express his capabilities as well as his limitations. His alternate career of choice may not be glamorous by any means but we feel that he is enjoying where he is and what he is doing. He smiles a lot more now. There is a confidence in Tony that is alluring, like he is someone you can share drinks with at a bar and hang out with all night. Is he a success story? Some might argue that he is not. But in my eyes, he is. At least for now.
A common theme this time around is the questions surrounding the divorce of the subjects’ parents. Apted likes to ask how the separation has impacted one’s outlook on love, marriage, in staying together or not staying together. A few are convinced that their parents’ divorce has had very little impact on them at all. But then there are others who think that it may have handicapped them subconsciously not just in terms of connecting with others but how they come to view themselves.
This is a particularly interesting topic to me because I do not know how it is like to have divorced parents even though I have a lot of friends whose parents are no longer together. I found it fascinating that certain perceptions or opinions that the subjects have, toward themselves and others, are shockingly similar to the views held by some of the people in my life. I wondered to what degree the similarities are.
I wanted to know more about Nicholas, once a boy from a small village whose father and grandfather were farmers. When he was fourteen, he revealed to the camera that he was interested in physics and chemistry, not farming at all. Now studying at Oxford to become a physicist, when the director makes a claim that he is the best success story of the group, Nicholas’ response hit home. I was able to relate deeply when it comes to his evaluation of what others believe he has achieved versus his own feelings about achieving his goals.
“21 Up” gives the audience a lot of information to digest. This is appropriate because the people being interviewed have developed a solid enough set of reasoning skills which allows them to provide answers that better represent where they currently stand. At the same time, although the subjects are children no longer, their basic ideals, at least with many of them, are more or less the same. It also gives the impression that luck, even though a lot of us may dismiss its role outright, may be a force that can help to influence one’s life in one direction over another.