Some Kind of Heaven
(USA, 83 min.)
Dir. Lance Oppenheim
Lance Oppenheim’s portrait of a sprawling retirement village in Florida begins as a cotton candy coloured, palm tree-lined fairytale. The complex, named The Villages, is its own self-contained world. It comes complete with spacious suburban streets, golf courses, clubs, pools, restaurants, activities, shops, and a town square set in buildings reminiscent of cheesy old-time amusement park shops. “You would never have to leave,” asserts a resident. It is everything one could want in a retirement complex. But not everyone’s golden years are so golden, even in The Villages.
The aptly named Some Kind of Heaven starts by introducing “Florida’s friendliest hometown” as a concept. It’s a heaven on Earth for retirees. It’s the ultimate indulgence and reward for their years of hard work. It’s where people cruise around on golf carts, perfect their favourite hobbies, and often become single (and ready to mingle) again. “You come here to live. You don’t come here to pass away,” quips a resident.
It’s almost expected that residents have fun at The Villages. There seems to be no reason not to – at least that’s how most people see it. While the film buys into the pitch at the beginning, and Oppenheim clearly has fun at the complex himself while taking in the cinematic visual, it soon becomes apparent that, just like everywhere else on Earth, there are people struggling in The Villages. Problems don’t magically evaporate when one walks through the gates of an apparent utopia.
The film follows four characters who have less than perfect lives in the complex. Barbara had come for a fresh start with her newly retired husband, but is now a widow and struggles to find her place while living alone,. Reggie and Anne have been married for nearly 50 years, but they are shakier than they’ve ever been, as Reggie spirals into substance abuse and fits of mania. The last person the film follows isn’t even a “villager” at all. Dennis is a drifter and con man in his 80s who sleeps in his van in the parking lot. His retirement plan is to bag a rich old lady and move in with her.
Some Kind of Heaven sees life at The Villages through the eyes of people who struggle to find the carefree lifestyle it sold them. Oppenheim reveals a more nuanced understanding of life at a retirement home by adopting this perspective. In doing so, the film illuminates the unique pressures and challenges that come in the last chapter of life, which the residents expected to be their golden years. It is painful, and even scary, to watch as Anne loses grasp of the man she’s been married to for so long, or as Dennis faces the reality of being homeless and that his retirement plan (however absurd) may not work out.
While the film is loyal to these characters, it also remarkably captures the community at large in colourful and cheeky snippets of activities like the singles’ club, dance and swimming routines, and an experimental acting class in which Barbara finds her voice. The film evokes a strong sense of place through shots of the sorbet-coloured skies and the tropical greenery reflected in the pool at dusk, or golf carts zooming around the expansive property. There is a feeling of whimsy and absurdity in these scenes that puts the characters in a lighter context, offsetting the harsh weight of the realities they face.
Produced in part with the New York Times and by Darren Aronofsky, Some Kind of Heaven casts an incisive, journalistic eye on its subject while paying special attention to world-building and finding deeply interesting characters. Oppenheim strikes a balance that admires the ambitions and ideals of The Villages while also showing how the realities of life still seep into its cheerful seams. It captures the magic of the place where over 120,000 seniors have gone for their last shot at happiness and peace. Explaining why he sticks around, trying to find a way in, Dennis says, “It’s like god’s waiting room for heaven.”
Some Kind of Heaven is in select US theatres on January 8, and streams on demand beginning January 15.