Generational Harmonies

Generational Harmonies

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Event Recording: A Conversation With Kasley Killam

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Two Oscar-winning Films Shine a Light on Intergenerational Connection

More evidence that there’s a cultural revolution underway

By Marc Freedman | Mar 11, 2024

Porche Brinker is a young violinist featured in the Oscar-winning short documentary, “The Last Repair Shop.”

Despite the ongoing drumbeat of generational conflict (a hate story), right in front of us is evidence of a new narrative of cross-generational connection and collaboration (a love story). 

That love story was on full display at the Grammys, most visibly in the Tracy Chapman/Luke Combs duets. And there it was again at last night’s Oscars, where two winning films were all about love across generations. More evidence that we’re in the middle of a cultural revolution evident in music, TV, film and other corners of the arts.

Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” is about an older, curmudgeonly teacher (Paul Giamatti) thrown together with a surly, maladjusted teenager (Dominic Sessa). It received five nominations and won Best Supporting Actress for Da’vine Joy Randolph, who plays a grieving cook also stuck in a stuffy 1970s New England prep school during winter break. 

“The Holdovers” follows an intergenerational plot arc that has shown up in film after film, and that is well suited to our times. An older and younger person are thrown together against their will, sent on an adventure that often involves a road trip, and in the process come to save each other. In the end, their deep bond turns the story from a hate story to a love story. That’s the plot of “Hacks,” “The Intern,” and so many other intergenerational tales, including my favorite of all, Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (Waititi is also behind the intergenerational television series, “Reservation Dogs”).

But the best intergenerational film to win an Oscar last night was “The Last Repair Shop,” which triumphed in the Short Documentary (Short Subject) category. Indeed, the entire category was stuffed with memorable intergenerational films, including 29-year-old filmmaker Sean Wang’s ode to his maternal and paternal grandmas (96 and 86) living together in Fremont, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” (the grandmas made smash appearances on the red carpet.) Another nomination in the category, “The ABCs of Book Banning,” focuses on centenarian Grace Linn and her battle to stop school boards from banning books for young people.

“The Last Repair Shop,” directed by Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, and distributed by LA Times Studios and Searchlight, tells the hidden story of the office of the Los Angeles school district that repairs 80,000 free musical instruments for students. It’s built around four older craftspeople responsible for repairs of woodwinds, pianos, strings, and brass for students unlikely to be able to afford the instruments otherwise. The four share their own stories of overcoming adversity and their deep commitment, in the words of one commentary, “to ensure no student is deprived of the joy of music.”  

The craftspeople remind me of the phrase “a silver-haired safety net.” Even without direct interaction with young musicians, the four elders are pillars in advancing the prospects of these young people — indeed, that is a primary motivation for the work they do.

It’s easy to focus on the power of direct connection between older and younger people–I always have–but this magnificent little film reminds us that the older generation can do so much to support the success of young people without even meeting them — especially when there is shared purpose, in this case the love of music. In his Oscar comments, filmmaker Kris Bowers observed that “Music education isn’t just about creating incredible musicians — it’s about creating incredible human beings.”

The psychologist Erik Erikson once said that the hallmark of successful adult development could be encapsulated in the phrase, “I am what survives of me.” Indeed, that quote might well hang over the hidden-away warehouse where the LAUSD instruments are repaired. 

With a boost from the Oscars, here’s to hoping that the shop and the film about it will be hidden away no more. And that the love story the movie tells helps vanquish the hate story that is still too often heard.