As frequent readers of this column surely know, I'm reluctant to dole out adjectives like "heartwarming" and "touching." That's Oprah's job.
But even this cranky critic has to admit that his heart was warmed and touched and generally massaged by the wonderful documentary "Andrew Jenks, Room 335" (6 p.m., Cinemax).
First-time filmmaker Jenks decided, at the ripe old age of 19, to spend his college winter vacation living in an assisted-living facility near Port St. Lucie, Fla., and document the lives of his elderly neighbors. He figured that folks who had lived a long time had something to teach him.
At first, the brash, handsome and engaging young man treats his sojourn as a bit of a stunt, a surefire way to get attention for his movie. But he soon insinuates himself into the lives of his elderly companions and follows the rhythm of their days.
"335" focuses on a handful of the more active characters at the Harbor Place facility. Tammy, a remarkably alert 96-year-old, treats Jenks like a surrogate great-grandson. She's filled with advice and good cheer for her neighbors. Born in Italy and old enough to remember arriving at Ellis Island, she grows regretful only when she considers how she has outlived all of her friends and family. "They go," she observes, "one by one."
The youth and vitality of Jenks and his camera crew draw the taciturn Bill out of his shell. A sly and silent lady's man with a weakness for candy, he becomes playful in Jenks' presence, teaching him boxing moves and dispensing advice about "chasing girls."
Jenks asks frank questions about life and death, sex and relationships and none of his octo- and nonagenarian subjects appears to flinch. He spends time at bingo games and chats often with a Greek Chorus of unreformed smokers who don't exactly love Harbor Place but don't want to burden their children. "You can't have two women in the kitchen," remarks one, between puffs.
At 96, the remarkable Tammy has seen it all, "All the good, the bad and the evil in this world." This seems to be the wisdom that Jenks was seeking when he embarked on his project, and he leaves Harbor Place a changed young man.
His film also exposes one of the secret addictions of the elderly. As Jenks prepares to depart, he tells his new friends, "I'm going to miss watching 'Jeopardy!' so much."
At a time when so much new media is devoted to gossip and cruelty, Jenks' film is a refreshing tonic and a celebration of youthful curiosity, boundless empathy and human decency. His film will make you laugh, make you cry and make you think. And you can't ask much more of filmmaker, be he 19 or 96.
Tonight's other highlights
¢ "American Idol" (7 p.m., Fox) returns with a two-hour look at the summer's auditions.
¢ "Nova" (7 p.m., PBS, check local listings) concludes a two-part look at the search for super-cold temperatures.
¢ The Western miniseries "Comanche Moon" (8 p.m., CBS, part 2 of 3) continues.
¢ Kevin Federline guest stars on "One Tree Hill" (8 p.m., CW).
¢ "Real Wild West" (9 p.m., National Geographic) separates fact from myth.
¢ A student's murder casts light on an abusive classmate on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., NBC).
¢ A very strange paternity case on "Boston Legal" (9 p.m., ABC).
¢ "Independent Lens" (9 p.m., PBS, check local listings) presents the documentary "Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita."
A local basketball squad recruits a ringer who turns out to be Bigfoot in the 1998 comedy "Big and Hairy" (7 p.m., Hallmark Movie Channel).