20 Movies and TV Shows That Prove the Generation Gap Is Real

20 Movies and TV Shows That Prove the Generation Gap Is Real
Image: Only Murders in the Building/Hulu

Stories of generational conflict are nothing new, in film, TV, or human history, but especially once the 1950s rolled around and American kids suddenly became a demographic worth marketing to (right around the time James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause made teen angst mainstream), the generation gap itself became a definable narrative trope — and the economic and technological upheaval of the past half-century or so has only compounded matters.

Not every movie about the generation gap provides healthy examples of inter-generational engagement. To paraphrase novelist Catherine Aird, a horrible warning can be as instructive as a good example, and, in that spirit, cautionary tales about troubled or failed relationships are as worthy as those that promise reconciliation and harmony. Here are 19 films about characters who try to cross a generational divide — some of whom never quite make it.

Hacks (2021 – )

In just ten episodes (so far), Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder have proven themselves to be a pairing for the ages: Smart is Deborah Vance, a legendary but hopelessly outdated stand-up comic who’s increasingly being forced to confront the fact that not only has success dulled her edge, but her fan base is increasingly elderly. Einbinder is an all-but-cancelled comedy writer brought on by Vance’s people in order to sharpen her act. Though (mostly) a comedy, the show takes both troubled characters seriously, and dodges cutesy moments of cross-generational bonding in favour of doing the real work of exploring the complex relationship between two very different people.

Only Murders in the Building (2021 – )

Only Murders in the Building makes clear that, in the 2020s, only one thing can reliably bring together different generations: true crime podcasts. Steve Martin and Martin Short, two man of similar ages but very different demeanors, team up with twenty-something Selena Gomez when the three realise that they share an obsession with a particular true crime podcast, a fascination that leads them to take on the task of investigating a murder that occurs in their enviable New York apartment building (one which only Martin’s character can actually afford). The three have little else in common, and part of the joy of the series is seeing the ways in which Gomez and her older partners-in-crime-podcasting learn to communicate across a gulf of time and pop culture references.

Dispatches from Elsewhere (2020)

This is a deeply idiosyncratic miniseries, not all viewers will be able to look past its borderline excessive quirkiness, but at its heart (and it has a big one), it is all about making connections. In this case, members of three generations are working to build bridges: Jason Segal and Andre Benjamin are two men solidly entering middle age and realising that they still don’t know who they are or want to be; Eve Lindley is a young trans woman looking to escape from a life of isolation but not knowing how; and Sally Field has dedicated her life first to her children and then to her ailing husband, reaching her 70s without understanding who she is on her own. Ultimately, the show makes clear they each have a great deal to teach each other — once they learn to appreciate different perspectives.

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Few of us can boast of a parent-child relationship as…interesting as that which existed between Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relatable in the abstract. And where it’s not relatable, it’s fascinating. Fisher wrote the script, adapted from her own roman a clef novel, and Meryl Street and Shirley MacLaine play characters loosely based on the real-life mother-daughter double act. Add famed director Mike Nichols into the mix, and Postcards is an all-star production — one that argues almost no amount of trauma is enough to destroy the bonds of family.

The Humans (2021)

Nothing brings out conflict between generations like getting everyone together for the holidays. In this 2021 indie from director Stephen Karam, based on his Tony-winning, Pulitzer-nominated play, three generations of a family (played to flawed perfection by the likes of Beanie Feldstein, Richard Jenkins, June Squibb, and Amy Schumer) gathers in a rundown NYC apartment for Thanksgiving, and the pressure of tight quarters quickly bring long-buried conflicts and misunderstandings to the surface. Much bickering and recrimination ensues — over sexual politics, religion, familial obligation, and even “that zombie show on TV.” As the apartment begins to seem as inescapable as a haunted house, you might be given reason to feel blessed your family isn’t this bad — or to change your holiday get-together plans.

Fences (2016)

The fences are literal and figurative in this Denzel Washington-directed movie, based on the August Wilson play. One of its core relationships is between Washington’s character, Troy, and his son Cory (played by Jovan Adepo). Cory has dreams of football glory, while his father fears that path leads nowhere, and fatally wounds his relationship with his son in the process of trying to protect him. Troy’s attitude is based on practical considerations, but comes with the weight of his own shattered dreams. He’s not necessarily wrong to be worried, but he’s driven by both fear and bitterness, a fact that’s clear to everyone but him.

Neighbours (2014)

A bit smarter than you might expect of a sex comedy, Neighbours explores the moment when we realise we’re no longer young (trust me: it’s jarring). Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne play a couple adjusting to parenthood when a fraternity moves in next door. Hoping to keep things chill, the two vacillate between trying to act like authority figures and embarrassing attempts prove that they’re down, only to reach the point of full-scale neighbourhood war. I’m not sure there’s a moral at work here, unless it’s that the way to make peace with the kid you used to be (or the frat next door) is to embrace the advantages of age.

Boyhood (2014)

Filmed over the course of a dozen years, Richard Linklater’s masterpiece (well, one of them, anyway) follows the relationship between Ethan Hawke’s Mason Evans Sr. and Ellar Coltrane’s Mason Evans Jr. over a similar span of time. Across the years, the family breaks apart, comes back together, and reconfigures itself in recognisable ways — it’s all believably complicated, and, if we’re looking for a lesson, it might be that parent-child relationships are always fraught, and that there’s no easy path — the only way out is through.

Carrie (1976)

Chuckle if you will, but this movie plays very differently if, like me, your family includes fanatically religious evangelicals. (Bonus points if it also includes queer kids). In that light, the relationship between Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie), isn’t much more heightened than what many of us lived through, minus some telekinetic powers and last-act bloodletting (literally anyway). I’m not sure that Carrie offers any hope whatsoever that very different parents and kids can reconcile, but it definitely makes a strong case for dumping as little of our own bullshit as possible onto our kids.

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Much here is specific to its era, but a lot is broadly relatable, too. A pending $US10,000 ($13,882) life-insurance settlement sees a multi-generational family in turmoil over what to do with the winnings. At the heart of the conflict is the disagreement between Ruby Dee’s Ruth and her son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier): she wants the stability that would come from buying a house with the money, while he hopes to open a liquor store in order to provide future income. The arguments touch on the sometimes conflicting goals of the Civil Rights Movement era and the virtues of respectability politics, but they also hit on broader generational gaps between more conservative older parents and less risk-averse youngsters.

Mare of Easttown (2021)

We stan Jean Smart now more than ever, and in her second major show of the past year she plays a very different type of character from her flashy Vegas comedian in Hacks. Here, she’s the stern, dour, wickedly funny mother to Kate Winslet’s Detective Mare Sheehan, investigating a small-town murder. She’s fascinating: loud-mouthed, opinionated, even downright mean, but still committed to her role as the head of her family — the jagged rock on whom Mare can lean.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)

It’s all in good fun, but at the heart of the Netflix animated movie is the relationship between aspiring filmmaker Kate Mitchell and her technophobic father Rick, which explodes into intra-family conflict at the film’s outset and quickly spirals into global warfare. To try to repair a breach between father and daughter, the entire family decides to take a road trip to deliver Kate to college — a highly dubious strategy in film and in real life — but when an army of rogue AI threaten to take over the world, the family is forced to reforge their bonds, and their survival eventually comes to depend on Rick and Kate somehow finding a middle ground.

Hairspray (1988)

High schooler Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) just wants to dance — hopefully on the Corny Collins Show in Baltimore circa 1962. Her mum Edna (Divine) isn’t so sure a well-brought-up girl should be doing that kind of thing. It takes witnessing the bigotry and prejudice of the other local mums for Edna to figure out that times are changing, and that there’s nothing wrong with shaking your butt a little. Seems sometimes the only thing a parents needs to do to connect with their kid is to chill out a little.

About Schmidt (2002)

The inter-generational relationship here is complicated most by the fact that Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt has almost no redeeming qualities. He’s not a villain, but he’s sort of a nothing: no curiosity, no skills other than basic survival. At some point he realises how little time he has left and how little he has to show for his life, but he is entirely ill-equipped to do anything about it. All he can manage is to ruin the wedding of his daughter (Hope Davis) to a man who Schmidt feels is beneath her. But who is he to judge? The character’s most significant moment come when he realises he’s not the one to tell his daughter how to live her life — a revelation that would benefit many a parent.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy follows the title character from birth in a small, rural Indian village to an adulthood spent, in the later films, in urban Calcutta. At the heart of the series is the troubled relationship between Abu and his fiercely protective mother Durga, who has become emotionally hardened by life. Though the two never entirely bridge the gap between their very different world views — and so might offer more lessons in what not to do with our own families — it’s one of the most realistically complicated parent-child relationships in film. Without sacrificing the specificity of time and place, Ray makes clear that some themes are indeed universal, and that the cycles of love, regret, and guilt are part of most, if not all, relationships between parents and children.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece is quietly devastating, telling a straightforward story of older parents setting out to visit their children and grandkids. There’s love to be found between these people, and no obvious sources of tension or recrimination, but still, the next generation sees them as a burden. Eventually they’re sent to a spa as a treat they don’t really want, only to get them out of everyone’s hair. Of course, parents won’t be around forever, and the guilt of disinterest eventually turns into genuine heartbreak at the time that might have been spent together. Consider it a cautionary tale.

Beginners (2011)

Here it’s not a child inspiring a parent, but the other way around. Christopher Plummer plays Hal Fields, a man who comes out of the closet in his 80s, to the great surprise of his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). As the two come to terms with this new reality in different ways, and form a closer bond as a result, it’s ultimately Oliver who does most of the growing, taking a cue from his father’s newfound sense of joy at finally living authentically.

Grantchester (2014 – )

There’s a slightly different generation gap at play here: There’s only a roughly twenty-year age-gap between the protagonists (more or less depending on which season you’re watching). In 1950s Cambridgeshire, Robson Green plays overworked, cynical WWII-veteran police detective Geordie Keating, while James Norton (and later Tom Brittney) play well-meaning but occasionally straying local priests who help solve the inevitable string of murders. They’re good pals and drinking buddies, but there’s a simmering conflict between the older Geordie, who’s earned his cynicism by surviving hard times, and the younger men who he sometimes figures have had things much too easy. It’s a common refrain from generation to generation, though perhaps slightly less relatable in our current moment, one in which even the youngest members of society have already lived through plenty.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Inspiring Ozu’s Tokyo Story decades later, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow tells the story of two elderly parents who find their lives upturned when they lose their house to foreclosure. There’s no employment to be had for people of their ages, and not even Social Security to help out (this was 1937), and so they’ve no choice but to go to their children for help. As in Tokyo Story, there are no villains here, but the children find it stifling and inconvenient to take in their parents, eventually splitting them up in different households before talk starts of nursing homes. At the time, the film made a great case for better elder care options in America — and watching it now, it doesn’t feel much has changed.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Confused, ashamed, torn apart: James Dean knew exactly what being a teenager is all about. Pity his parents just didn’t understand.

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