'Cyber-Seniors' shows an elating exchange between senior citizens and teens

'Cyber-Seniors,' a documentary, follows a group of seniors taking a computer literacy class.

By , Film critic

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    Grandparents don’t shy away from iPads in the documentary ‘Cyber-Seniors.’
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The documentary “Cyber-Seniors” follows a group of senior citizens, mostly living in two Toronto retirement homes, as they dive into the brave new world of computers. At long last, here is a movie for people who still think a mouse is a rodent and not a computer device.

Aiding the initiates every click of the way are teenage mentors, who, while flabbergasted at the oldsters’ Internet illiteracy, are more than happy to help. Together they constitute a program called Cyber-Seniors started in 2009 by two teenage sisters, Macaulee and Kascha Cassaday, who were supported by their mother, Brenda Rusnak. Older sister Saffron is the credited director of the film, which covers 10 months of Cyber-Senior sessions.

Now I’m not quite as old as Methuselah, and I know enough about computers to have recently written a book using one. (Shameless plug: “Rainer on Film.”) Still, I found myself identifying with these seniors an unnerving number of times. I suspect others will, too. The maddening thing about computer literacy is how rapidly it can morph into computer illiteracy if you don’t stay ahead of the ever-expanding curve.

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The initial liftoff in learning among the seniors in this film is daunting – starting with “How do I turn this thing on?” As one of the mentors remarks in the film, “We are looking at the greatest generation gap in history – because of the technology.”

What’s elating, of course, is how enthusiastically these seniors – many of whom, by their own admission, have never worked anything more technologically advanced than a telephone – take to the Internet once they get the basics down. It’s not just about e-mailing family members or – are you sitting down? – Skyping them. The film revolves around a YouTube competition between the participating seniors after the irrepressible 89-year-old Shura creates a cooking tutorial that goes viral. Or at least one portion of it does: the part where she demonstrates how to make a grilled cheese sandwich by wrapping some bread and cheese in tin foil and then ironing it. (Shura, it turns out, is afraid of microwave ovens and never uses hers.)

To some extent, the computer usage in these retirement homes breaks down along stereotypical gender lines. The women seem mostly interested in meeting men (although they don’t want to come off as “too bold”) and chatting with their friends and family, especially computer-savvy grandchildren, while the men are more interested in things such as online banking. But it’s the new-style connection with family that ultimately provides the biggest payoff for everybody, even, as it turns out, the Cassaday family, when dual tragedies strike.

The teenage mentors are not immune from a little comeuppance. Ninety-year-old Barbara, told that she can access music on the Internet, asks about the “Hallelujah Chorus.” When her young tutor draws a blank at the reference, Barbara sets her straight: “Young lady, you are uneducated musically.” Touché.
It’s also clear that the old people here really enjoy being around young people, and, learning-curve cluelessness aside, the feeling seems mutual. “I just see them as regular people now,” says one kid. Forget Facebook friends. The friendships forged in this movie, which come alive before our eyes, are the real deal. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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