While watching Some Kind of Heaven, you might begin to ponder on the tight collection of movies about the plastic, Nuclear-family-esque unreality of suburban life. And that’s probably because director Lance Oppenheim plainly takes cues, both visually and tonally, from the genre in ways. But it’s also because his subject, a massive retirement community in Florida, was essentially built from the same psychic blueprint as those films: the nostalgic dream image of an unblemished American yesterday. What Oppenheim has found, in his first feature film, is a real place every bit as art-directed as the communities in Edward Scissorhands or Blue Velvet. Like a movie set you can move into.
The Villages, as this place is called, sprawls across three counties just outside of Orlando. And 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 “Disney World for retirees.” 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. Yet Some Kind of Heaven isn’t some cutesy human-interest story, and it certainly doesn’t double as a feature-length commercial for the community. Even when Oppenheim zeroes in on its most cheerful eccentricities, there’s an undercurrent of unease and-or sadness. 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 there are plenty of subjects within this bubble who’s lives aren’t exactly idyllic.
There’s Anne and Reggie Kincer, who have skidded into a rough patch after forty-seven years of marriage — in part because Reggie has begun experimenting with psychotropic drugs. The widowed Barbara Lochiatto who also moved to The Villages 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, longing for a move back home which she can’t afford. There’s also some runtime for the scheming of an interloper: Dennis Dean, an eighty-one-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 eighty-three minutes, each subject experiencing something akin to a scripted arc. Yet Some Kind of Heaven still tends to be bittersweet and inconclusive: Just because Barbara makes a connection with someone doesn’t mean that romance is a sure thing. And while there’s comic potential in Dennis’ rocky plot, the reality of his situation is actually rather desperate, as the man’s options narrow and he considers retreating to the stability of an old relationship. Through all this, Oppenheim captures some deeply sad, deeply human moments.
Some Kind of Heaven contrasts the discontent of its subjects with the sunniness of their setting, the better to stress the wide gap separating how they feel and how they’re expected to feel in a community where one member unironically refers to as “nirvana.” At times, the film is as composed as The Villages themselves: Oppenheim and 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 work 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 the final years finally spent enjoying yourself. No matter, this is surely one of the more strikingly shot documentaries in recent memory, capturing a vibrant palette of Florida colors on a mix of 35mm and textured digital.
The Villages is definitely an interesting place, an ideal setting for a movie. One could imagine multiple, very different documentaries set in this place, ones that dig even deeper into the subcultures and oddities. Oppenheim largely treats this mirage kingdom of elder-years easy living as a gateway into the desires and disappointments of those struggling to buy into its promise. In the process, he’s made a film where happiness can’t fully be grasped, even with a swimming in the backyard and Jimmy Buffet forever playing. With the peculiar beauty and empathy of a Rockwell painting, Some Kind of Heaven taps into the elusive nature of happiness, the lie of life becoming more simple and pleasing as you grow older.
Some Kind of Heaven is available on VOD