One of the worries of an Up series neophyte must be, "How will I possible keep all these people straight? They've been in a documentary series for the last 49 years, and I've seen none of those films."

Fear not. Director Michael Apted weaves in pieces of previous Ups, from the original, 7 Up, on which he was a researcher (he took over as director for 7 Plus Seven), to 49 Up, the previous film in this series that follows a group of English schoolchildren every seven years from age 7 through 56, which they are now.

In this collection, we see what's happened with Sue, Paul, Neil, Peter (who left after 28 Up and has returned to promote his band), Jackie, Suzy, Nick, Symon, Bruce, Lynn, Andrew, John and Tony. The clips of the other documentaries in which they've appeared give context for what their lives were and what their lives have become.

In short, it's fascinating. Moving away from the class implications (these are English people, after all) for a moment, the two subjects that seem to come up with each participant is whether they regret particular choices in their lives, and what they feel about being subjected to the documentary series all these years.

Not surprisingly, most of them are deeply ambivalent. As Suzy says, "I have this ridiculous sense of loyalty to it even though I hate it." Nick, a professor of electrical engineering, agrees. It's difficult to get a full picture of a person when a camera crew follows you around for a week every seven years, he says.

But these partial pictures give a pretty full picture of a life, and part of the point of the Up series must be—though this is a guess—to see how we identify with each of its participants, or with a few, or with none. Anyone struggling with finances will identify with Jackie, who has debilitating rheumatoid arthritis but has been told she no longer qualifies for government assistance.

Then there's Tony, who owns and drives a cab in London. He's currently taking care of one of his grandchildren while her mother, one of his daughters, goes through personal problems of her own.

Then there are the rich guys, one of whom agrees that there is a difficult class system in England. The other emphatically doesn't. Who's to say who's correct? As an American who's spent a total of six months in England, all of it in London, I'm in no position to glean any kind of grand overall picture of the United Kingdom's social hierarchy based on 15-minute snippets of 13 people's lives.

And that brings us back to the stories, which captivate. One of the lawyers, John, like many of his documentary counterparts, gripes about hating the Up series, but then admits it's been good for him. A San Francisco filmmaker, upon seeing one of the films, sends a charity with which John is heavily involved a significant amount of money. The subject acknowledges this would not have happened without Up.

Tony tells a story about driving astronaut Buzz Aldrin and being asked for an autograph by another cab driver. When Tony asks Aldrin for his autograph, the other cab driver says, no, he wanted Tony's signature. Tony cracks up telling the story many years later.

These are the stories of lives, and each of them is compelling. Maybe our next-door neighbor's is, too, but Up is the film series we were given. Suzy, when expressing her frustration with the way the series is structured, asks why don't they have crews follow them for a few months and then broadcast the series that way?

Reality TV producers take note. As anyone who's seen 56 Up can tell you, all of these people have more to offer than the Kardashians.

56 UP
Directed by Michael Apted
The Screen
143 min.