Those nostalgic for the fond portraits of eccentric Americana in Errol Morris’ early work — and pretty much everyone else — will be delighted by “Some Kind of Heaven.” Lance Oppenheim’s first feature is a peek at life in The Villages, an increasingly vast Central Florida retirement community where those who can afford it spend their twilight years “being on vacation every day.”
This highly entertaining documentary captures the near-surrealism of a prefab senior playground, while also finding some poignant human interest in focusing on a few personalities for whom the concept isn’t quite working. It should be an appealing item for niche programmers in various formats, from pubcasters to streaming services, with limited theatrical release possible.
An opening production-number montage of a few of The Villages’ many colorful recreational clubs and activities — which include not just synchronized swimming but synchronized golf-cart driving — sets a whimsical tenor. Indeed, much what goes on here seems to involve public performance, with cheer squads and karate deemed appropriate recreation for the resident aging baby boomers. “It’s like going off to college,” one observes. “Everyone can be whatever they want to be.”
But that spirit of playful reinvention and pursuit of pleasure is a luxury not everyone can afford, nor does it suit every type and temperament. Bostonian Barbara moved in several years ago with her husband, selling their house back home. But sadly, he fell ill and died not long after, leaving her depressed and alone, without the funds to rejoin longtime friends and family left behind. (She’s the only person we meet who still works, clocking a full-time administrative job at a rehab center.) Though not self-pitying, she seems to be a serious person stuck in an essentially frivolous setting. Things brighten when she meets an eligible bachelor, though he may not be as eager for the stability of commitment as she is.
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Even more of an outlier here is Dennis, who’s come here to “party” as a “last hurrah” at age 81. But he’s essentially a gate-crasher, living in his van while passing as a resident at public mixers, flatly admitting that he’s hoping to snag a wealthy woman who’ll house and support his last years in comfort. (It takes a bit longer before he admits he’s also fleeing an arrest warrant in California.) A charming rogue but no longer exactly a prize catch, he’s a flamboyant cautionary example of someone who never bothered planning for the future, and now basically has none.
Anne and Reggie, who’ve been married nearly half a century, present the doc’s most dramatic thread. Being athletically inclined, she takes easily to The Villages’ endless array of sportive and social outlets. But Reggie seems off in his own head, pursuing an odd mix of Eastern, Native American and miscellaneous spirituality. Stepping even further from the fun-loving yet essentially conservative culture here, he begins experimenting with illegal recreational drugs, resulting in serious consequences — both for his marriage and with the law — that he’s grown too delusional to grasp. We don’t get a sense of how The Villages deals with senility or other conditions that curtail its pervasive image of highly active senior life. But Reggie illustrates how the place is essentially a haven for the healthy, and certainly not ideal for anyone with escalating issues of mental illness.
This community of some 180,000 (up from a mere 800 at its mid-1980s founding) is frequently called “a bubble,” for both better and worse. It’s apt enough that “Some Kind of Heaven” stays within that bubble, offering an immersive if incomplete experience — after all, our protagonists are in the minority of residents for whom “Disneyland for seniors” isn’t turning out to be a great ride. Still, it would be interesting to have gotten at least a little insight into The Villages’ relationship with the surrounding, less-affluent communities of the Greater Orlando area. And there’s no acknowledgement of what’s perhaps the elephant in the room: that this classic if exaggerated rainbow’s end to the American Dream, one of leisure retirement amid great (and presumably expensive) material comfort, is something fewer and fewer folks will be able to afford in the future.
Still, if it frustrates a mite with what it leaves out, “Some Kind of Heaven” is consistently ingratiating for what it includes. Cinematographer David Bolen has a field day framing eye-catching compositions of the sometimes silly but always picturesque everyday realities of a “town” newly built to evoke comforting memories of yesteryear (complete with made-up “official” histories for certain buildings). Everything else in this lively, colorful production is pleasing, amplifying a general tenor that’s good-humored yet never condescending to the people onscreen.