Whether they are willing to admit it or not, all documentaries make an argument. Michael Moore is never shy about voicing his opinions, while at the other end of the spectrum, Ken Burns frames his work as recording history. Some Kind of Heaven, the debut work from Lance Oppenheim, never shouts its thoughts from rooftops, but thanks to juxtaposition and keen editing, the message comes through.
The film premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it takes a look into the lives of four residents of The Villages in Florida. The Villages is the largest retirement community in the country, home to over 75,000 people, all looking for their own version of a twilight chapter. Some Kind of Heaven opens with idyllic shots of palm trees and golf carts, but as it allows us to get closer to a small handful of the residents, we see that even the gates of this gated community cannot keep reality from leaking in.
Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years and are proud of it. She likes pickleball and keeping active, and he prefers more metaphysical pursuits. When we first meet them, she’s the uptight wife and he’s the quirky husband. But through closer inspection we see a much deeper portrait of their post-retirement life.
Barbara is younger than many of The Villages’ residents, and still needs to work full-time. She moved to Florida from Boston, reluctantly bringing both her husband and her strong accent, but was soon widowed and left trying to find her way in this strange place. She tries her best to get out and meet people, but the most gregarious we see her is when she is getting her hair done and chatting with a stylist.
And finally there’s Dennis. He lives in his van, which is often parked somewhere in The Villages, and relies on swimming pools for showers and hunting for mates. Dennis is very open about wanting to find a woman to support him financially, though as the film proceeds it becomes clear that he may not truly know what he wants.
The pivots in each character’s story never feel like a bait-and-switch, but rather a peek behind the curtains. For every person who claims The Villages is a utopia built in stucco, there’s another person hiding a struggle or lying to themselves. Especially when watching what Anne and Reggie are going through, it is difficult not to see every couple dancing across the screen (sometimes literally) as complicated—and not people who have it all figured out.
Cinematographer David Bolen brings a contemplative gaze to this curious world. The activities of the community, like a golf cart drill team and synchronized swimming, are filmed in vivid color with frequent symmetry, resembling the feel of idealized 1950s advertisements. These manufactured images are what sell people on The Villages, and they are what many of the residents want to believe their lives look like.
Oppenheim never goes so far as to shift Some Kind of Heaven into a rumination on loneliness or class disparity, but there are hints throughout that he’s building an argument to look beyond the surface. Dennis appears to be the same as his tanned, parrothead neighbors, however his intentions and personal history set him apart from many of the people he tries to connect with. And while it might seem that Barbara is doing her best to put herself out there, we see her literally out of sync at tambourine practice and staring, vacantly, off in the distance during her workday.
It is through these revelations that the documentary is constructed with intention. Oppenheim could have dug deeper to only show us the gritty underbelly of this Floridian dystopia. Instead, he creates a dialogue between perfection and defects, pleasure and discomfort, love and loneliness, movement and tranquility. The Villages is not one or the other, and Some Kind of Heaven looks at all of these angles.
This is not a documentary that aims to educate, proselytize, or sell, though in its own way it does all of that. It chooses which facets of this niche world to show you through remarkable access to the residents, and with a guiding hand that asks you to draw your own conclusions.