A weirdly-entrancing documentary about the lives of four residents within Florida’s quasi-cultish retirement community The Villages, Some Kind of Heaven is endearing, passionate, and head-shakingly raw. This is a story about those twilighted individuals who do not want life to end, at least not in a whimper, and preferably not alone.
The skill in making a great documentary is tricking the subjects to relay truths while the camera is on. Some Kind of Heaven might be young director Lance Oppenheim’s first full-length feature but he is already a master in revealing such insight. Each establishing shot features a long pause that is beautifully awkward and intimately claustrophobic. He presents a trial in seeing how long a subject can hold a fake smile. Quiet patience is all that’s required as the realization is blatantly loud: that maybe this is not the end initially envisioned.
Along with the on-going narratives of the decidedly different lives of these silent Villagers, Oppenheim paints a dichotomy of retired life in Florida, showing the gorgeous, the false, and the fractured. Of relaxation and margaritas in pastels; where life moves at the speed of a golf cart. Of homelessness, addiction, and isolation among a population of a hundred grand.
The Villages is often called the “Disneyland for Retirees.” From synchronized swimming to pickleball, residents play golf, take acting classes, and exercise as cheerleaders. Life is good. If you can afford it. And if you buy into the package. Some Kind of Heaven focuses, however, on four residents living on the margins, striving to find happiness. Oppenheim displays their dreams turned to woe with The Villages providing the background color. And there is woe to be had, self-inflicted or not.
Some Kind of Heaven is paradise with a side order of heartbreak.
There are thousands of tales in this naked city. Oppenheim shows four. Barbara, a recent widow and who is truly the movie’s only sympathetic character, must work full time at The Villages in order to live there. She’s anonymous but desires inclusion. Married couple Anne and Reggie wrestle with Reggie’s deteriorating grip on reality and psychedelic drug use; Anne desperately wants her husband back. Dennis, an 82-year-old bachelor living out of a van, searches for a sugar mama to supply bologna-and-mustard sandwiches.
The camera follows them. From Maragrita-ville to church, they all provide additional cognizance in this uncovering mystery of truth.
There is one particular scene. A quick cut shows Barbara telling a story. A little metaphor of life, death, and answers from God. The camera pans back revealing that she is reciting lines in The Villages acting ensemble. And she is good. Like the others in this doc, she has that sadness to fall back on. Unlike the others, she is given the chance to externalize and, perhaps, move forward.
As a documentary, the storytelling exists to showcase The Villages’ uncomfortable reality; in showing the cracks in the walls; the holes in the characters’ lives.
Oppenheim firmly sets out to show the lives of these four individuals with The Villages playing that silent fifth man. As striking as the narrative is for the residents, the allure of this weird setting screams for more attention; a request that goes unheeded. This equates to the only unevenness of an otherwise stellar feature. The viewer certainly gains a sense of closure on the characters but the environment remains unsettled. Are The Villages truly a Flordian dream to aspire? Where perfect weather and non-stop activities provide a contextual Fountain of Youth? Or is this slice of heaven as flawed as its community where every moment is a mere distraction of the inevitable?
Perhaps yoga, and margaritas, and golf carts are resignations not paradise.