To most twenty-somethings, watching a parent or grandparent trying, and failing, to use a computer is a familiar experience. This technological generation gap is often the butt of our jokes. So when two teenage sisters started the Cyber-Seniors program, an educational initiative through which high school students teach the elderly to use the Internet, it served a genuine cultural purpose. Much to my surprise, it also makes for pretty interesting cinema.
Cyber-Seniors director Saffron Cassaday is the older sister of the program’s founders. She surrounds the film with a family framing device that at first seems misguided, but be patient. It goes somewhere, and so does the movie. At the heart of the picture are the handful of senior citizens that Cassaday follows. Most are pushing ninety, and they’re definitely characters.
The inherent arc of the premise makes Cyber-Seniors really work. The characters go from being technologically clueless to posting their own YouTube videos. That might not sound like a riveting documentary, but the movie reminds you what an incredible tool the Internet is. It’s easy to take its ubiquity for granted. The people onscreen reconnect with friends and relatives they’ve been isolated from for years, and it’s magical. One character uses an instant messenger for the first time, giggling with delight at every new message. When it’s all over, she says to her teenage mentor, “I’m told I have a very good imagination, but these things, I never even dreamed about.”
The teenage mentors are perhaps the movie’s weak point. It’s clearly filmed from a young person’s perspective, so more time is spent on what the seniors learn from the teens and less on what the teens learn from the seniors. And if you’re not learning something by cruising J-Date with a grandma, I’m afraid there’s not much to teach you.