The absolutely remarkable documentary Some Kind of Heaven was produced by (among others) Darren Aronofsky and the actress Lindsay Crouse. There may not be anything quite like it since Errol Morris started out. It’s all the more exciting for being a debut: director Lance Oppenheim has quite a future in front of him.
The subject is The Villages, a Florida retirement mecca (or ghetto) of some 110,000 and counting. It’s not precisely a gated community, since public streets run through it. It’s big enough that Donald Trump made a campaign stop there. It’s inexpensive by California standards (the cookie-cutter houses can be got for $250,000). The community’s 55-or-older residents plow through a constant schedule of activities, such as synchronized swimming classes, dances, and mixers. One group consists of a dozen women all named Elaine, who gather like the pack of people named Alan Berliner who director Alan Berliner gathered for supper in The Sweetest Sound (2001).
Oppenheim has subjects who trust him completely — and he doesn’t betray them. True, he notes, as all us elders must, the decay of the bodies, the cloud of disappointment and despair that consumes some who lived until retirement age. But I’ve seen people film their own grandparents with less compassion than Oppenheim shows here. He observes a bereft widow, as well as a wife whose four-decade-long marriage has become, as she says, not 50/50 but 80/20, with the brunt of it on her side. With great humanity, Oppenheim takes on the problem of one enterprising elder, one step ahead of the Villagers watching him as he sleeps in his van. (It’s probably an apples/oranges comparison, but I got so much more out of Some Kind of Heaven than I did out of the much-praised Nomadland, on the subject of a car-dwelling senior.)
The Villages come with their own prefab myths, “all made up over a bottle of Scotch” says Harold Gary Morse, the son of the communities’ founder, Harold Schwartz. The enterprising father is memorialized in a bronze statue, standing in a Texas-cut business suit in the middle of a fountain, like a man who accidentally waded in. (A sidebar Oppenheim didn’t explore is Schwartz’s past in Mexican border radio during the 1950s. Before he got into the retiree real-estate business, Schwartz discovered American Grafitti’s Wolfman Jack, and gave the DJ a 250 kilowatt microphone that he used to blast the Northern Hemisphere. It also seems Schwartz’s ashes are interred in the base of the statue.)
Morse explains that the idea of The Villages is to “give baby boomers a home that’s familiar.” So the Disneyland-like fakelore about the place is as real as the mock Spanish colonial antique downtown, built to mimic the 1950s hamlets of a Boomer’s youth. Oppenheim mulls these bogus exteriors over a novel yet never overwhelming soundtrack by Ari Balouzian; he matches wavey retro synthesizers with swelling Mancini strings. These sunset years retirees have purple and scarlet sunsets to watch; photographer David Bolan makes them as succulently overripe as the landscapes in The Florida Project.
In interviews, Oppenheim has likened what he saw at the Villages to The Truman Show. For that matter, The Villages has an uneasy resemblance to The Village in TV’s The Prisoner. A lighthouse unveiled for an extension to it looks less like a welcoming beacon than a guard tower.
The Village denizens we meet are full of mixed feelings. “Barbara,” originally from Boston, is lonely and widowed, and she longs to go back home. Unlike most of the people here, she’s still working 40 hours a week. She’s trying to connect; she bowls, golfs a little on a putting green, and has a margarita out of a plastic glass at the monthly meeting of the Parrothead club. With a row of a half-dozen calendars in her kitchen, it’s as if she can’t count the days passing fast enough. Barbara has enough of a sense of humor that she can brush it off when her lap dog goes for a surprise foot-hump right in the middle of an interview. (She apologizes: “It’s not sexual, it’s about dominance, the vet told me.”)
The still-virile “Reggie” is tanned and aerodynamically bald in the way of the elderly Picasso. He’s often a solitary swimmer in one of The Village’s pools, laying in the grass doing lion-face yoga, and driving his golf cart straight into a sprinkler for relief on a sweltering morning. He’s a constant vaper of the weed. Unfortunately, Florida still has stiff marijuana laws. Reggie’s habit becomes worrisome to his wife “Anne” even before he gets busted, as he starts to shift from benign eccentricity to delusional fantasies of being God.
“Dennis” is an 80-ish gent with an uneasy past, back where he came from in California. He tells the camera that he’s desperately seeking a well-off woman to live with, while looking for covert overnight parking for the van in which he lives. He’s like a fox in this Floridian henhouse, with a long and questionable resume (he worked for Gerald Ford, he claims). Dennis considers himself to be in show-business, as we overhear when he’s cold-calling friends for money. In his case, the entertainment business means scraping a cajun washboard while a lady next to him plays a Pennsylvanian stick-mounted percussion instrument called a “boomba”.
Dennis’ plight isn’t ever really comic, and we witness moments of his seeking out spiritual consolation with the kind of pastors who wear cargo shorts and camp shirts; one keeps a camel in a paddock on his premises for Christmas pageants. Some Kind of Heaven suggests The Villages are a last microcosm for failed consumer paradises, as when Anne is lost in the town’s supermarket, or when we’re watching the local TV broadcast that has nothing else to report than the story of a resident’s car. The “frog” villagers (“Here ’til we croak”) are neither really ecstatic or sad.
Oppenheim has a terrific eye for the odd and the serenely beautiful, and an ear for the odd Altman-like comment: “This is the most palm trees I have ever seen in my life” one new arrival comments. He keeps viewers in a state somewhere between idle thoughts of “Perhaps I could be happy there” and “this is just too freaky.” The number of non-whites we see here could fit into a Smart car — you leave these Villages with the question of whether you’d want to spend the end of your life in a city where you only see faces that look like yours.