At the film's heart is the old Jesuit dictum, "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man." Tony, a fractious, irrepressible East End urchin bursts through a doorway, trips, does a face-plant, bounds up again and pelts down the alley. His heart is set on being a jockey; by 14 he's working in a racing stable. He leaves school at 15, has a brief, unsuccessful shot at racing. By 21 he's driving a taxi. At 49, Tony is with his family at their vacation home in Spain and still full of plans -- a sports bar, a play about his life -- still barreling along.
But no life's arc is sure and predictable. Neil from Liverpool is as bright and shiny as a new penny at 7. "I want to be an astronaut," he says, "but if I can't be an astronaut, then I want to be a coach-driver." At 14, he's still articulate, but his expression is clouded and anxious. At 28, he's roaming the Scottish countryside, homeless. He fears he may be going mad. Yet in his 40s, redemption -- Neil somehow has made his way into local politics, a wish from his 20s that had seemed absurdly unattainable.
Like time-lapse photography, the film mesmerizes as fully formed adults take shape from the germ of their 7-year-old selves. Unlike the scripted nonsense of today's "reality TV," Apted chooses humanity. As one character says, "Every life is an act of courage, and everybody has a story."