Bubble worlds and echo chambers, escapism and selectivity—perhaps the reason that first-time director Lance Oppenheim seems to understand The Villages retirement community so deeply is because its social elements resonate with anyone that grew up online. These social phenomena are, of course, not new, but they are a vital part of everyday life—political and otherwise—in a digital landscape. Approaching them and those that willingly seek them with open eyes and ears, but with brains enough to assess their motives, takes a savvy non-fiction storyteller. Oppenheim’s new documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, introduces the filmmaker as an exciting new voice as he unpacks the quintessential “got old and went to Florida” locale with visual beauty, deep empathy and the wizened charisma of its subjects.
Built from his college thesis project, Some Kind of Heaven is a confident debut from last year’s Sundance that follows a handful of Villagers: Anne and Reggie, a couple with a husband that’s used retirement to experiment with drugs and embrace ideas (like that he actually died and has been reincarnated) that estrange him from his extremely patient wife; Barbara, a full-time working widow stranded in a place that rubs her the wrong way; and Dennis, a con man living in his van on the prowl for a wealthy single woman to provide him a place in The Villages.
Immediately, that supposed sense of uniformity—that designed sameness of aesthetic and experience that helped give The Villages its reputation as “Disney World for old people”—is revealed to be nothing but a front. And that’s before you really even start to meet the subjects. The film’s opening juxtaposes a diverse selection of primary-colored synchronized activities (swimming, golf carting, rowing) with voiceover that lays out the hyper-positive, hyper-choreographed façade that comes with living in the community. The Villages create the same kind of “see no evil” bubble that resembles the positivity-only fronts put on by internet personalities looking to create their own echo chambery cults. Unraveled here, it’s somewhere between Errol Morris’ loving look at eccentric Americana and a John Waters wet dream: Hawaiian shirts, polyester, tanned wrinkly skin, souped-up golf carts and elderly cheerleaders.
These striking visuals continue throughout the film, with editing by Daniel Garber that transcends its (still slick) match cuts to a more elegant place of narrative flow between images. And Oppenheim knows just where to place everything. Cinematographer David Bolen’s framing centers and grounds its subjects when everything around them is designed to be a heightened escape from the inevitable reason they all came there: To die happy.
Anne and Reggie’s scenes are perhaps the most compelling, as they’re highly applicable to any sort of later-in-life sea change, in which a stubbornness overtakes an individual and their obsession with a new world—be it political, religious, or chemically induced—separates them from reality. It’s not hard to watch Reggie’s quasi-religious drug use and YouTube channel get him into trouble with the law, then think of older relatives that could get sucked into Facebook conspiracy theories. Of the elderly faces photographed storming the Capitol. There’s a self-righteousness present that’s only tempered by his wife’s devoted attempts to balance him out. Interwoven with that, looking at the couple as sort of an imperfect-yet-admirable end point, is Barbara.
It’s the sweetest narrative, the one that best captures the need for fulfillment and what kind of brightness it can bring. Barbara was stranded here by death after her husband’s passing and is left empty by the various clubs around The Villages…until she’s flirting. The focus on her face, her concrete expression, is brilliant to look at on its own, but when a moment of transformation takes place (the concrete cracks as she smiles at a nice guy’s sweet dad jokes), you understand the technique as a delicious piece of set-up to a moving payoff. The deep and dedicated focus to everyone’s faces, bodies and other physical signs of mortality is potent throughout—even Dennis’ conspicuous gold-digging finds moments of touching melancholy when he’s on the phone with his mom.
But all this seriousness about love, loss and the human needs that start up early and continue until the end aren’t without a sense of fun. Some Kind of Heaven’s glib punchlines (like its title) and aesthetic choices (like a voyeuristic camera and thrillery score accompanying Dennis’ more slimy schemes) work best when they’re paired with some nicely dry moments of undermining honesty. Moving music and a lovely montage are great to watch, but when the plug pulls on the score—immediately hitting silence more effectively than than a record scratch—for some hardened words between a married couple, the meaty filmmaking is seasoned with unflinching honesty. That makes up for some of the stagey conversations that can crop up throughout the ultimately very natural doc.
That truth comes through because the story is told from within, expressed by those who’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid (or sniffed it and found it wanting), explaining how the façade can still be what works for those it works for—and how, if taken with a little self-awareness, a façade can still provide that Disney sense of magic. The TV news’ big story might be that an old man is driving a hot rod, but the real world’s problems (at least on an interpersonal level) can never be suppressed. That constant complicating throughline, symbolized in an evolving marriage and a flirtation’s aching potential, only makes the possibilities of The Villages more exciting. A utopia’s promise always seems too good to be true, but finding its everyday problems puts it within reach. Some Kind of Heaven leaves its subjects’ stories without ends—except the one end everyone knows is coming for us all—basking in the beautiful imperfect potential of an open door, an empty calendar day, a bare dance floor.
Director: Lance Oppenheim
Release Date: January 15, 2021 (Digital)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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