Lance Oppenheim’s directorial feature debut, Some Kind of Heaven, takes us inside the unique world of The Villages in Florida. For those unaccustomed, because I definitely didn’t know it existed, it’s quintessentially a man-made retirement city. Starting off as a humble community of only 400 or so units in the early 1980s, over the next 10-15 years, they rebranded and started to expand the ‘village’ by adding shops and more commercial ventures and once it’d hit the early 90s, there were over 8,000 people living there.
If you think that sounds like an impressive jump in numbers, today The Villages is basically a small city with a retirement population of nearly 130,000 people, all over 55, and moving to Florida to live out their days without the usual setup of living in a town or city, because this venture caters for all kinds of imaginations and activities. It’s sold to prospective tenants as a dream destination, where you’re on holiday all the time and can just relax. So, surely in such perfection, everyone is happy and content? Well, not exactly because people are people, and these residents also have a lot of personal history.
It’s important to make it clear that Some Kind of Heaven isn’t so much a comment on ‘The Villages’ themselves, this isn’t a look inside how it’s run or anything of that manner, but is very much a people study, a delve into the lives of four specific sets of residents and they’re not quite part of the ‘everyday’ of the area like so many others are. Sure, they’re trying to find their happiness but it’s not that easy when you’re either widowed (Barbara), having a slight mental breakdown within a long-term marriage (Anne and Reggie) or a gold-digger living out of a van (Dennis) and pretending you’re not.
After recently watching the outstanding Nomadland, this is an interesting bedfellow for the lives of people of a certain age and quite the eye-opener. Oppenheim’s documentary lets the four we focus on tell their stories though, without judgement and it’s fascinating from start to finish. In the early stages, we learn of the setup of the community and it all feels very The Truman Show. Perfect choices for you day, no hassles and the same routines personally scare the beejezus out of me, but I can appreciate why people of a certain age would like that, and especially in Florida.
Presented in 4:3, Some Kind of Heaven has an unusual, yet welcome, Wes Anderson vibe early on, with bright title sequences for each character, seeing these dream-like situations but also feeling a darker plot of reality lurking underneath. You see, all these people were promised paradise in The Villages, but can 130,000 people all find that at the same time? The answer is obviously 50/50 and there are clearly folks who love the way they live, but the likes of Barbara, Anne, Reggie and Dennis give us an utterly fascinating insight into the psyche of the older generation but also as a microcosm of the concept of the so-called American Dream. Something we all know was never a real thing, a concept kept on a nostalgic pedestal with peeling paint, broken light bulbs and drapes covering up the ugly parts.
While there’s no extreme drama here, there doesn’t need to be because the stories are mesmerizing. Reggie’s struggle with some loss of reality is both poignant and slightly crazed, you feel for his wife Anne, but you also sense she’s knowingly and purposefully ignored it for a long time. Dennis, our resident van-dweller, also has a very reflective tale of trying to find himself a rich wife, and he’s clearly desperate to try and settle down at 82-years-old but does he have it in him to do that? And then there’s Barbara, my clear favourite, who’s a recent widow, trying to look for a companion but also quite different to the others here, in a good way. She’s got a wicked, dry sense of humour who is willing to try things to change her solidarity life and displays an absolute killer acting talent in some drama classes, I seriously hope someone signs her up for a proper, fictional film role.
Secrets, sunburnt self-doubt and hopeful dreamers are all here. Lance Oppenheim has previously made several short documentaries, but this debut feature is an absolute beauty, and he’s definitely one to watch out for. Poignant, compelling and funny – Come on in to discover a world you probably haven’t seen before that explores the human nature of personal growth, and don’t forget to grab us both a margarita on your way over from the bar.