You couldn’t ask for a richer documentary subject than the Villages, the massive, Florida-based retirement community that’s home to over a 120,000 senior citizens and functions as its own self-contained, self-sustaining AARPverse. What started as a mobile-home park in the 1970s began to develop into an ever-expanding set of properties that catered to giving folks a luxurious, resort-style experience throughout their autumn years. (If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the role it played in the 2020 Presidential campaigns.) The fact that it’s been dubbed “Disneyworld for retirees” is not coincidental — its founder, Howard S. Schwartz, hired a company to design a mid-20th century town square not unlike the manufactured, old-fashioned Main Street you’d see at those nearby amusement parks. For a steep-ish price, folks of a certain age can sip from “a fountain of youth” with a familiar Americana vibe. It doesn’t hide the notion that it’s pandering to a baby boomer’s idea of nostalgia. That’s the hook.
Buy a house or condo here in the 30-square-mile expanse, and you can join the rowing team, do water aerobics, take Bollywood dancing or Tae Kwon Do classes. There are grocery stores and golf courses, movie theaters and malls, dozens upon dozens of restaurants, bars and nightclubs; there are numerous clinics to treat STDs, the numbers of which where allegedly off the charts within the community at one point. (Whether you hear someone refer to this geriatric venereal epidemic as a “scandal” or an “urban legend” depends on who you’re talking to.) You don’t need a car; any and everything you could want is only a brief golf-cart ride away. The only thing forbidden is children. “This is different than most gated communities,” says a cheery greeter at the Villages’ official entrance. “This is a community with gates!”
Some Kind of Heaven, Lance Oppenheim’s tour of “Florida’s friendliest hometown,” is not particularly interested in unpacking the notion of selling this generic idea of a shiny, happy permanent vacation for the 65-and-over set. Should another documentary care to dive into the feedback-loop sociology of this elderly Stepford, it’s still there for the picking. What his formalist, self-consciously surreal peek behind the curtain does instead is pick three case studies and run with them, each of which serve to chip away at the notion that this heaven on earth is a one-size-fits-all Nirvana. The seniors aren’t alright.
First, there’s Anne and Reggie Kincher, a couple who’ve been married for 47 years and, as the film catches up with them, appear to be heading towards a wall. She spends her days on the pickleball court, or doing some other athletic group activity. He’s a bit more solitary, and fills his solo hours by making up for lost time in the hallucinogens-taking department. At first, Reggie seems to find inspiration in expanding his mind and letting his late-breaking freak flag fly. Once some disturbing delusions that he’s dead, God, or some combo of both start to come into play, things take a turn for the extremely weird, and possibly dangerous.
Then there’s Barbara Lochiatto, who planned to move from Massachusetts to the Villages with her husband and ended up relocating as a widow. In contrast to the smiling, beaming testimonies of so many residents — though the movie’s penchant for making all of this gladhanding some slightly suspect means you’d never mistake it for a sales pitch or infomercial — Barbara is not feeling like she’s in paradise. An outsider among the many seventysomething singles, Parrothead partygoers and living-room tambourine players, this woman seems to feel she’s been sold a bill of goods. “It’s like living in a bubble,” she complains, which means she’s one of the few to identify the community’s primary feature as a bug.
Speaking of singles: Meet Dennis Dean. A smooth operator from California, he doesn’t live in the Villages; he just hunts there. This silver-haired Lothario’s plan is to meet a wealthy female resident (or two, or three, or a dozen) and try to set himself with one who can allow him to indulge a life of endless poolside cocktails. Barring that, he’ll settle for someone who’s pretty and will let him crash at their place so he doesn’t have to keep sleeping out of his van. Imagine “Freebird,” if the song’s protagonist finally decided he wanted to settle down in his Eighties and found out that his seductive charm had slightly curdled.
Pinballing between these three stories with impeccably composed interludes of dancers and golf-cart precision drill teams filling its squared 1:33 frame (all the better to make you feel you’re watching something under a microscope slide), Some Kind of Heaven skirts just south of condescension and slightly northeast of having a bigger-picture agenda. Oppenheim does not want to bury or praise these folks who’ve decided to indulge in senior-citizen hedonism. He’s more interested in the human aspect of these people who’ve entered this grand-scale Olive Garden of Eden and found it wanting, or at the very least, in making queasy art out of the communal hangover — whether it’s tableaux of country-club kitsch or oddly moving scenes of graceful grandparents going HAM on activities. It’s a mood, as the kids say. And then out of nowhere, the movie will hit you with the emotional toll of one’s golden years getting a little tarnished and scuffed around the edges. Come for the snickering, it seems to say. Stay for the unexpected lump in your throat.