Cyber-Seniors demonstrates a big-hearted phenomenon: that of a younger generation teaching their elders how to use the Internet, with a special emphasis on social media. Whether the elderly folks on screen are “with it” or not is barely touched upon, which is appropriate, as the point should be the world-expanding potential of using the Web, not scoring points off of the friction generated when old and young brains come into close collaboration. But that’s what happens anyway, and the film is too standard-issue in its making to probe beyond the rough outlines of a success story. Part of the thrill is problem-solving, but it’s actually just the most meager hint of problem-solving that may or may not happen in the future; the young teachers and the ancient pupils are inevitably rusty for conversation with each other. The film maybe would have been better tailored to one senior’s use of the Internet with many years lived in the rearview.
That said, they get it together long enough to make some Internet magic happen, and the footage is beyond charming—at its best, touching and revealing in bulk across many different seniors. After decades of mystery, a woman asks for help reconnecting with an old ex via Facebook. Lonely widows and widowers learn how to keep tabs on their grandchildren’s social-media feeds. The tutors grin as they watch old ladies pulling up their very first search results on YouTube. The film politely tiptoes around the lives, loves, and losses of the cyber seniors, first amicably, later in something of a mad rush to show them enjoying the Internet as much as possible. A sharper focus on the film’s subjects—or, in imperfect documentary parlance, its “characters” as people, and not as trainees—would have paid off more resolutely in terms of the dirt under the film’s fingernails. (Many of the elderly interviewees are just happy, it seems, to be hanging out with young people, which could undermine the unwaveringly pro-Internet stance of the training sessions on screen.)
A tradeoff is made clear in the film’s introduction: The documentary is an offshoot of a not-for-profit endeavor founded by filmmaker Saffron Cassaday’s younger sisters. Abundant with family footage, interviews with the Cassadays’ parents and extremely cozy to the sound of its director’s own voice, it can recall the weakest autobiographical digressions of Born into Brothels or Gunner Palace, where the thrill of access over-ripens and dominates the art of the inquiry. Is this mix—part hype-building, part first-person storytelling—particularly new, or just a mutant spinoff of the classic diary film? Has it ever been a good idea to score footage to the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, unironically or not? The seniors deserve a piece of the film’s vision; at the end of the day, with or without the “cyber,” they will remain their human selves. Finding the correct balance between investigating and cheering them on is no small task, but with Cyber-Seniors so generic in form, Cassaday hedges on whether she’s making a film or a promotional video in the first place.