It is easy to see why Lance Oppenheim chose the Villages as the subject for documentary feature debut, Some Kind of Heaven. The Villages are a sprawling retirement community in central Florida, spanning across three counties and home to over 50,000 people over the age of 55. Beyond just the community’s massive size, the thing that set the Villages apart is its sense of good-natured isolationism. They have their own newspaper, news broadcasts, and an expansive history to dig through. As one resident says in the film, you don’t hear about any crime in the Villages, and you certainly don’t see any kids.
The catch is, it’s all manufactured. Founded in the 1980s, the Villages took its hint from Disneyland, the aim is explicitly to provide a heightened version of Boomer nostalgia for affluent retirees to escape to for the final years of their life. There are several nightclubs with live music, as well as activity groups for any possible special interest and meticulously crafted town squares the reflect idealized versions of Americana. Everything is perfectly placed and planned, all spurred on by apparently discovering the fountain of youth. It’s simply an escape from the larger world you live within.
Oppenheim, a Florida resident, along with his producing partners that include Darren Aronofsky and the New York Times, clearly see this not-quite-earnest slice of quaint small town life as a great entry point for their storytelling. But the interesting and vital choice Oppenheim makes is not to focus on the Villages as a phenomenon itself, exploring the ins and outs of how the space is run (though that would make for a fascinating documentary in its own right), but rather chooses to document three distinct stories in miniature about the lives of people who live in it. There are short vignettes where we see glimpses of the Villages’ social life (highlights include a club exclusively for people named Elaine and a belly-dancing class learning a routine to Dean Martin’s version of “Let It Snow”) that give hints of the broad strangeness that seems to be common place. But by focusing on these three stories, these three lived lives, Oppenheim is able to pull the trick of exploring this strange space without endless ageist gawking.
The three stories include Anne, who is dealing with the increasingly erratic behavior of her husband Reggie; Barbara, a recently widowed woman who is attempting to find a path forward; and Dennis, an 82-year-old slickster who lives out of his van, but attempts to pick up women within the Villages so that he can crash at their place for stints at a time. All these stories are remarkably intimate and familiar, feeling bitingly universal to all living things, most potently the longing for companionship. The contrast Oppenheim displays in great detail is that for all the practiced obfuscation that the Villages practices in, real life has a pesky way of constantly slipping in through the cracks.
This contrast, between real life and practiced paradise, is reflected down to the filmmaking itself. Oppenheim, along with his cinematographer David Bolen, aren’t interested in showing this world with the simple flat lens of unobjective observers. Rather, they borrow heavily from the visual language of some of cinema’s most striking compositors, most notably Wes Anderson and David Lynch. Meticulously framed shots present the action for maximal dramatic impact and carry across the artificiality of the space these people have chosen to live in. Just as the Villages crafts a narrative for people to sink into, Some Kind of Heaven uses heightened visual storytelling to draw its audience into a sense of half-reality. This meta-textual filmmaking choice is what elevates an interesting premise to one of the most unique documentarian debuts in recent memory.
Of the three stories, Barbara’s is probably the strongest, mostly because it allows us the most versatility in exploring the Villages themselves. Barbara is herself a skeptic of the Villages at the beginning of the film, all too cognizant of just how false her surroundings are. But alone, struggling with still working and unable financially to return to her previous home of Massachusetts, she is stuck and attempting to make the best of it. As she visits different interest groups and meets new people, we are allowed to journey alongside her as fellow skeptics, hoping to be drawn in.
Partially thanks to the expanse of the Villages themselves, in some ways Some Kind of Heaven feels like it is simply scratching the surface, giving us a partial glimpse of this other world and the people within. But as a piece, it is a refreshingly tender portrayal of people at their end of their life, still struggling through the same things we all do. What could be a mean-spirited tour through a cynical scheme instead display careful compassion to never make the residents themselves the joke of the piece, but rather the universal absurdity of life itself. These are people, living the remainder of their messy lives as best they can, trying to find what simple comforts are still available to them. It is a heartwarming and sensitive piece that honors those lives and their journey.
Some Kind of Heaven is now showing in theaters as well as streaming on demand.
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