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They bonded over the end of an epic film saga. No, it’s not ‘Star Wars’

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Left to right, dressed as figures from Michael Apted’s documentary film series “Up”: Jessica Benton, Timbo, C. Brian Smith, Gabe Diani, Annabelle Gurwitch, Etta Devine, Maggie Rowe, Jim Vallely, Jack Rudy and Susie McDonnell.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Some came in street clothes. Some were in costume. One came on hobbyhorse. We few, we happy few, we band of binge watchers of British filmmaker Michael Apted’s “Up” series, assembled armed with high hopes — apologies to that other iconic U.K. director, Mike Leigh.

The mood was decidedly upbeat when a dozen of us arrived at the Nuart to see “63 Up” (currently on view at Lumiere Music Hall). We’d been gathering for weekly screenings of Apted’s films in the run-up to the ninth and final installment of the documentary series, originally conceived as a sociological study of children: posh public schoolers, working-class East End youths, wards of the state. All save one of us were dressed as our favorite character — scratch that, as the formidable real folk who have courageously, if not always gamely, shared their lives onscreen with audiences every seven years since 1963.

The latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series that began with “7 Up” is worth the wait.

Often it is the big tentpoles, like the “Star Wars” saga, that inspire fellow travelers to communal viewings — and on the surface, the “Up” series and the “Star Wars” films, of the same number, seem galaxies far, far away. But peel away the special effects and they can essentially be seen as companion pieces: Both chronicle sons and daughters as they alternate between reconciliation with and rebellion against the socioeconomic stranglehold of a powerful Empire; and each serves as a contemplative but at times explosive dialectic on the question of predestination.

Yet as throngs streamed to theaters garbed as Wookiees, Sith and Jedi, from what I can glean, our merry band was the only costumed “Up” watch group in either the U.K. or the U.S.

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Our posse was the brainchild of Maggie Rowe, a TV writer and author of the memoirs “Sin Bravely” and forthcoming “Easy Street.” “I love getting together with friends, but I hate parties and I’m not a game person” is Rowe’s explanation. “I’d watched the series once through and always hoped to find like-minded people to compare notes with.” She enlisted her husband, Jim Vallely, a producer on “Arrested Development,” to invite his friends too, in case no one responded. “The first week, four people showed up,” she recalled. “Somehow, it grew to 16.”

If we were a tribute band, we might be the Uppers. We dedicated one night a week (with breaks for holidays, flus and — for one — a harmonica gig) to the minor accomplishments and major life challenges of “the ‘7 Up’ kids,” the 14 original participants of the documentary.

A new film in the British series that has traced a group since childhood is planned; a boxed set arrives.

We guffawed at the reliable recap, included at the top of each installment, of the 7-year-olds’ excursion to an “adventure playground” — a veritable deathtrap junkyard, reminiscent of wreckage of the Death Star, where one child wields a pickax and another totes a splintery plank of wood. We emailed in feverish anticipation of each week’s viewing. Before “42 Up”: “Let there be BALD!” And I’m not proud to admit it, but one of us, it might have been me, sent an email prior to “49 Up” that read, “I’m just watching to see if one of them dies already!” Still, we genuinely worried over Neil, one of the series’ subjects, as his declining mental health led to a period of homelessness.

When the notion of dressing up for our theater outing was posited, email exchanges revealed just how steeped in the “Up” lexicon we’d become. “How about someone coming as a polar bear?” (as seen in a visit to a zoo) or “that splintery plank of wood?”

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An archival photo of Susan Sullivan in a scene from “63-Up.”
(Shiver Productions )

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That the Uppers are a loose friends-of-friends-of-friends affiliation might explain how we wound up with iterations of “the kids” in different time periods — two of us coming as the same person (Paul) and one Upper declaring, “I want nothing to do with this ridiculous [redacted] enterprise” before joining us at the screening nonetheless.

Most memorable was Jim, who arrived on horse stick. He’d spent much of his childhood on the small side, prior to an 11th-hour growth spurt, and like East Ender Tony had contemplated a career as a jockey. Etta Devine, a performer and filmmaker, proposed channeling the trio of East End working-class lasses whom Apted steadfastly refers to as “Jackie and her friends.” Etta already had Jackie’s schoolgirl costume and her feisty attitude, while Maggie settled on one of the pals, Sue, in celebration of her steadfast dedication to making the best of whatever challenges life presents.

I was moved by the other pal, Lynn Johnson, and her life mission: a Sisyphean campaign to spread “the beauty of books” to underserved children. One suspects that the sales force at Hollywood Toys & Costumes has fielded many an unusual request, but “I need a wig to look like ‘Lynn,’ you know, from ‘49 Up’?” drew a blank stare. It was my first time at the store; I’ve never felt compelled to costume myself unsalaried.

At the Nuart, topped with my newly acquired $24.99 mane of dark locks, I attempted to channel Lynn’s indomitable spirit at age 49. Accompanied by impersonators of her pals at age 14, it made for a dissonant if heartfelt reunion.

Taking in our first screening in a public space, we tempered our ritual running commentaries, murmuring assent as someone whispered, “I wish Bruce [who’d developed a paunch between “49” and “56”] would watch his weight,” and collectively sighing upon learning of Nick’s throat cancer. We couldn’t resist hooting in solidarity as — rheumatoid arthritis be damned — a 63-years-fierce Jackie took on Apted’s perennial failure of imagination regarding his female subjects’ future outside of marriage and baby making. We wept with the revelation of Lynn’s passing. Someone cheered and clapped when a cozy corner of a children’s library was dedicated to her. OK, that was me.

As the credits rolled, having witnessed “the kids” grow long in the tooth, one of us allowed, “I really need to be flossing more.” Jim and I, closest in age to the real-life Uppers, mulled over unfulfilled youthful ambitions and the fleeting fantasy of legacy. Jim summed up the satisfaction of the “Up” series with deadpan comic perspective: “It’s like catching up with the best group of old friends that are never going to ask to come and live in your guest house.”

One is tempted to wonder how we appeared to other restaurant patrons at our postscreening drinks and dinner. In our odd array of outfits — adults in grade-school uniforms, mustachioed twins, a grown man astride a stick horse — we were a ragtag bunch. Bewigged, were we, perhaps, patients undergoing chemo and their supporters?

But the Uppers knew who we were — a modest confederation who’d banded together in pursuit of a greater understanding of what it means to be human. For our effort, we’d been afforded an improbable and rare treat, practically a Tinseltown miracle: more than 17 among denizens of Hollywood, with nary a discussion of professions. We clung to one another just a bit longer than is seemly before merging into the night and the Los Angeles traffic, heading toward home and a new year buoyed by the most indefatigable force in this and any galaxy: community.

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Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and author of the essay collection “Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate to.” She’s at work on a new collection, “You’re Leaving When?”


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