On a recent episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” the show that focuses on one timely news story each morning, reporters descended on The Villages, the massive, pre-fab retirement community in central Florida. Boasting over 120,000 residents, the community is reliably conservative and, according to some reports, is singlehandedly responsible for keeping Florida red in recent elections. The focus of the episode, however, was the burgeoning liberal voices inside the manicured landscapes of The Villages, revealing a divergent narrative from the one so heavily managed by the community with fake town squares and more special interest clubs than the best-funded high schools.
Now comes Some Kind of Heaven, a debut feature documentary by Lance Oppenheim that similarly peeks behind the glossy façade to follow a few Villages residents with the sort of struggles and demons that don’t just disappear simply because one lives in a manufactured Utopia. The film’s exploration of addiction, loneliness, financial dependency and more is, in a certain light, almost too disheartening to enjoy; can it be that even in our final decades, we’re still fighting the same battles we struggled through as young and middle-aged adults? Isn’t all of that supposed to be behind us by then? But even as Oppenheim introduces us to each of the residents and their struggles, there’s an undercurrent of recognition in their situations, understanding that so long as we wake up each morning on this side of the dirt, as they say, there will be ups and downs and everything in between.
With no shortage of potential subjects on which to focus, Oppenheim spends his time (and therefore ours) with just four residents each on their own journeys to find the happily ever after promised in the brochures. There’s Reggie and Anne, long married and very much in a stressful late-stage of their relationship that sees Reggie experimenting with drugs while long-suffering Anne stands by helplessly wanting the man she married back. There’s Barbara, widowed and navigating the community’s vibrant social life alone and in search of a new partner. And there’s Dennis, who isn’t actually a resident but instead is casing the joint for a wealthy woman who can move him out of his van and into a kept life for his later years. As their stories unfold over the course of the film, we not only learn about their individual histories but we come to know the specific traumas and pain points they continue to struggle with even into their seventh and eighth decades.
Though the film includes interviews with Reggie, Anne, Barbara, Dennis and others, it’s Oppenheim’s fly-on-the-wall observational approach that delivers the most captivating moments. If living out the end of one’s life at a place like The Villages is a dream, Some Kind of Heaven becomes its own kind of altered reality as seemingly innocuous moments (the meeting of the “Elaines”; the synchronized golf cart choreography rehearsal) morph into something nearly dystopian. Move to The Villages, become one of the hive, your inner demons, relationship struggles and other issues brushed under the rug, no place for those messy things here thankyouverymuch.
At just over 80 minutes long, the documentary doesn’t spend much time at all on the history of The Villages, and no one from the community’s administration is featured, either (one imagines their publicity department didn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement). This isn’t some sort of definitive chronicle of the inner workings of this suburb for seniors; instead, it does something infinitely more interesting, focusing in on a few key subjects whom we get to know and for whom we come to care. Though each of them elicits some version of our sympathies (and conversely, some of our disdain), it’s Barbara who particularly pierced my icy heart; try not to root for her as she flirts with the golf cart salesman (going so far as to entertain becoming a Parrot Head to get to know him) or to feel for her as she dances alone on an open-air dance floor surrounded by couples. I feel you, Barbara. I feel you.
As directorial debuts go, Oppenheim arrives as a fully formed artist in his milieu; he’s been making documentary shorts for a decade now, and all that early work is on display in a film that’s as beautifully filmed as it is assembled, both in visuals and narratives. Though at first pass there’s a cynicism to Some Kind of Heaven, over the course of the film that initial impression evolves into one of, if not compassion, an acceptance that no matter where we go (or how we age), there we are.