Some Kind of Heaven finds legitimate pathos within the oddball trappings of a would-be utopian retirement community.
From the cold and gloomy vantage of New York’s post-pandemic winter, a chance to escape into a sunny, pre-Covid Florida sure sounds tempting. Watching Lance Oppenheim’s Some Kind of Heaven might be a small consolation prize, but its vivid and hallucinatory warmth is an incredible balm nonetheless. The oddball setting of The Villages retirement community — dubbed the “Disney World for Retirees” — calls to mind the early work of Errol Morris (Vernon, Florida, Gates of Heaven), and much like Morris, Oppenheim wrests great empathy from beneath the layers of kitschy Americana. The young director is no stranger to exploring the alienation contouring the American dream: his New York Times Op-Doc Meet the Happiest Guy in the World was about a man living out the last 20 years on cruise ships, and the focus there was attuned less to the gonzo world of cruise life than to the vague malaise lurking just beneath the performative gestures of vacation. With Some Kind of Heaven, Oppenheim turns his attention to the excruciating loneliness and fragility of another type of “paradise.” Under his adept direction, The Villages, with its promise to transport retirees into the America of their childhood, provides an even more robust metaphor for the sad shell game of the American dream.
Our introduction to The Villages is presented with an infomercial sheen: from synchronized swimming to golf, rowing to pickleball, tennis to dancing, and tai-chi to hot air balloons, this retiree paradise has it all. Located 45 miles from Orlando, it’s a toy-box of a town with an acreage larger than Manhattan and a population of 120,000 making it the world’s largest senior citizen community. To capture this otherworldliness, cinematographer David Bolan punches with emphatic colors that threaten to burst from the retro 4:3 frame, while the dreamy lounge of Ari Balouziar’s hypnotic score is equal parts inviting and ominous. Put differently, things here feel distinctly Blue Velvet, and this stylish and unsettling packaging forms a neat pairing with the melancholy stories at the film’s core. The welcome-brochure idealism of the opening sequence fades quickly as we are introduced to the people struggling to make this “garden of Eden” work for them. Anne and Reggie are watching their marriage of 45 years hit the rocks, Barbara works full time and feels isolated since losing her husband, and Dennis teeters on the edge of homelessness, living in his van between flings with the single women who house him.
These four become the focus of the film and create the emotional groundwork for Oppenheim’s explorations. Each of their stories extracts legitimate pathos from the at-times absurdist environs, but perhaps none do so clearly as Barbara, whose weary disenchantment and fish-out-of-water loneliness stands out as a palpable heartbreak. Having sold her home to move down to The Villages with her husband, she now finds herself alone. With no savings left and working-full time, she dreams of returning to Massachusetts — a plan that grows more impossible with each passing day. We watch as Barbara pushes herself to be part of the community, with varying degrees of success, and it’s through her lens that we come face-to-face with the pervasive alienation that lurks just behind the palm trees and beneath the glossy gleam. Her story culminates with a jolting monologue of decisive pessimism that she performs before an acting workshop: “God answers all our prayers, it’s just rarely the answer we’re looking for.” Her performance is met with riotous applause from the group, but as the camera holds on a close-up and we watch her shift back from her character, a modicum of the sad resignation holds firm.
Likewise noteworthy is The Villages’ isolation from the intrusions of outside reality. In 2018, at the time of filming, the Trump presidency is in the throes of chaos with the Mueller probe at its peak. Yet, in The Villages, life carries on as if locked in the amber of an imaginary Boomer paradise. Pop culture’s grasp on the community is similarly delayed: in one scene we watch an older gentleman crooning the “I know you want it” refrain of 2013’s “Blurred Lines,” this at a moment when #MeToo was dominating contemporaneous headlines. Scenes in which a television is heard or a video plays on a tablet carry forth an unsettling aura, as if these intrusions from the outside world threaten to rupture the fantasy. Yet despite this world’s vast and obvious disconnects, Oppenheim never resorts to mocking or condescending to his subjects; rather, he quietly pulls the underlying realities into the frame. Whether it’s Reggie arguing with a judge and making his case worse with every word or Dennis sitting in his van in the rain unsure where to go next, a sense of quiet desperation dominates whatever playful oddities are present on the surface. At times, Oppenheim even doubles down on his visual style — for instance, by shifting into slow-motion sequences that embolden the Lynchian aesthetic — and while this sometimes undercuts the film’s affecting realism, it also playfully reinforces the strain of unease running through the film.
The colorful dynamics and tender tones that obscure a deeper pessimism in Some Kind of Heaven find a spiritual pairing with last year’s Bloody Nose Empty Pockets — a docu-fiction portrait of a shuttering Vegas dive bar. In some ways, life at The Villages offers a similar type of respite from the stress and unbearable reality that lurks just outside the doors of your favorite haunt. This type of escape also mirrors conservative yearnings since the days of Reagan for a yesteryear time and place that never actually existed. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is one of the strongest Republican enclaves in Florida, and despite some pre-election headlines about rising Biden support, the residents voted just as decisively for Trump in 2020 as they did in 2016. For all of its weirdness and Floridian quirk, this community encapsulates not just the spirit of MAGA, but the fundament of the American myth. Such a connection is no coincidence — the pursuit and promise of an unattainable paradise are at the heart of both this MAGA-minded ideology and the retirement community’s utopian promise. With this in mind, the struggle to find fulfillment in The Villages’ dream, articulated brilliantly here by Oppenheim, mirrors the fragile illusions, aspirations, and failures of everyday folk in their quest to secure that elusive American promise.