Note: The writer of this review watched Some Kind Of Heaven on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Watching Some Kind Of Heaven, an entrancing new documentary about life in a massive Florida retirement community, the mind may drift to a whole library of movies about the plastic unreality of suburban life. Partially, that’s because the film’s prodigious director, 24-year-old Lance Oppenheim, plainly takes some cues, visual and tonal, from touchstones of the genre. But it’s also because his subject, the so-called “Disney World for retirees,” was essentially built from the same psychic blueprint as those films: the nostalgic dream image of an unblemished American yesterday, a boomer paradise more imagined than remembered. What Oppenheim has found, in his first feature film, is a real place every bit as art-directed as Blue Velvet or Edward Scissorhands or American Beauty. It’s like a movie set the size of Manhattan—a Hollywood facsimile of the midcentury high life you can actually move into.
The Villages, as this geriatric haven is called, sprawls across three counties, about 45 miles outside of Orlando. It’s home to some 130,000 residents, most of them senior citizens, to whom it offers a seemingly endless array of diversions and leisure activities and amenities—a consumer playground for the AARP set, like a luxury cruise spread across acres and acres of dry land. “Everything you could ever want is here,” one true believer gushes. Another likens it to being on vacation every day. But the community’s appeal runs deeper than its promise of nonstop fun, sun, and relaxation. It was also designed, from top to bottom, to conform to the rose-tinted idea of a “perfect” American town, the kind its demographic has mythologized in their heads. (That the population is mostly, though not exclusively, white probably contributes to that fantasy for some of the Villagers; not for nothing did Trump campaign there last autumn, shoring up the support of a largely conservative voting bloc.)
Some Kind Of Heaven is no cutesy human-interest story, and it certainly doesn’t double as an advertisement for the community. Even when Oppenheim zeroes in on its most cheerful eccentricities, there’s an undercurrent of unease: One scene featuring a club of women all named Elaine is shot to emphasize the smiling cult-like uniformity—a mark of the influence exerted by producer Darren Aronofsky, perhaps. Like many films about the actual American suburbs, this one is concerned with the discontent lurking beneath the bright, shiny veneer of prosperity and fulfillment. And Oppenheim finds that in several subjects whose experiences in The Villages have been short of idyllic.
There’s Anne and Reggie Kincer, who have skidded into a rough patch after 47 years of marriage—in part because Reggie, unenthused by the general wholesomeness of the whole place, has begun experimenting with psychotropic drugs. The widowed Barbara Lochiatto also moved to The Village with her husband, but now lives there alone, four months after his death; lonely and grief-stricken, she struggles to make friends or find a place in the community’s various social circles, pining for a move back to her hometown of Boston that she can’t afford. (That Barbara has to work a full-time job at her age to pay the rent marks her as both an outsider among the wealthier Villagers and also likely a stand-in for all the others wrestling with the financial burden of living in a veritable theme park for the elderly.) Finally, Some Kind Of Heaven spares some running time for the schemes of an interloper: Dennis Dean, an 81-year-old bachelor who lives in his van and parks on the outskirts of The Villages, with the confessed goal of seducing and moving in with a rich resident.
Oppenheim provides his parallel subplots a cleanly narrative rhythm. We see real change in these lives over 83 minutes, each subject experiencing something akin to a scripted arc. Of course, were they actually scripted, the upshot might be more uncomplicatedly happy. Some Kind Of Heaven tends to be bittersweet and inconclusive instead: Just because Barbara makes a connection with a fellow single doesn’t mean that romance is a sure thing. And while there’s comic potential in Dennis’ scampish plot to land a moneyed lover, the reality of his decidedly nonfictional situation is actually rather desperate, as the man’s options narrow and he considers retreating to the stability of an old relationship. Oppenheim captures some deeply sad, deeply human moments, like the scene where Anne’s face crumbles in disappointment when Reggie announces his plans to get high and “jack off” (in his blunt, unromantic parlance) on their wedding anniversary.
Some Kind Of Heaven contrasts the dissatisfaction of its subjects with the sunniness of their surroundings, the better to stress the wide gap separating how they feel and how they’re expected to feel in a community one talking head refers to, un-ironically, as “nirvana.” At times, the film is as composed—as manicured—as The Villages themselves: Oppenheim and his gifted cinematographer, David Bolen, carefully arrange their subjects in the frame, with an eye towards symmetry and kitsch. But that posed approach, indebted in part to the formal rigor of Errol Morris, helps underscore one of the film’s numerous ideas—namely, that for many of the residents, carefree retirement is a kind of performance, a role-playing of the very concept of final years finally spent enjoying yourself. Anyway, this is surely one of the most gorgeously, strikingly shot documentaries in recent memory, capturing a vibrant palette of Florida colors—the brilliant oranges and blues of the sky, the gaudy pastels of resident couture—on a mix of 35mm and textured digital.
If nothing else, The Villages is a novel setting for a movie, both visually and environmentally. One could imagine a wholly different documentary on the place, one that might dig a little more diligently into its subcultures and oddities and personalities, to say nothing of its politics. Oppenheim largely treats this mirage kingdom of elder-years easy living as an entryway into the desires and disappointments of those struggling to buy into its promise. In the process, he’s made a film about the lie of life becoming simpler and more satisfying as you grow older. Happiness may remain elusive, even with a swimming pool in the backyard and Jimmy Buffet forever on the jukebox.