Tucked away in central Florida, the Villages retirement community offers something of an end-of-life fantasy, where the troubles of the outside world fade away and residents are allowed to live out their lives among the fruits of the American Dream. It turns out, however, that living with the promise of perfection hanging over your head does not always provide a direct path to a life of simple luxury.
A sense of expectation for happiness, success and fulfillment looms over the inhabitants of the Villages. Reality still finds a way to seep into this pretty picture. Some are able to rise to the occasion, but others feel left behind in the shadows of what could have been. The documentary “Some Kind of Heaven,” available On Demand or through various streaming services, captures this through the stories of four of the Villages’ residents.
Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years. Anne likes to play pickleball, and Reggie likes to practice tai chi, sometimes with the assistance of mind-altering drugs. Barbara is widowed, having lost her husband after they decided to move to the Villages for a fresh start. She now works full time to make ends meet. Dennis is a drifter, hanging around the Villages in his van and hitting up its clubs, pools and churches to meet the lady of his dreams, someone with looks but more importantly means.
They are all searching for answers, and they share in the disillusionment that comes with not having them near the end of life. The Villages, with its radio spots spouting that you ought to check your pulse if you can’t find fun in its 3,000 clubs, tends to worsen the sting. When the place you live says it has everything a person needs for the ideal retirement, it creates the sense that any dissatisfaction is a personal problem. Anne, Reggie, Barbara and Dennis are forced to wonder how much truth there is to that.
Director Lance Oppenheim’s vision perfectly captures this odd contrast between the American Dream fantasy that the Villages aims to replicate and the haunting melancholy of an imperfect reality. Oppenheim treats the documentary’s subjects with admiration and respect, allowing their lives to unfold on camera with curiosity instead of judgment. This allows the film to highlight their humanity with all its eccentricities, authenticity and tenderness intact – something their surroundings seem to suppress more than encourage.
Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, David Bolen’s stylish and vibrant photography pops. The film often relies on wide angles instead of the more classic documentary approach of using long lenses to shoot as a fly on the wall. This not only achieves a lush, contemporary look, but it also creates greater intimacy with the subjects. The audience can see the subtleties of their emotions and become immersed in each person’s personal experience.
Bolen and Oppenheim masterfully use a visual language throughout the film, allowing framing and composition to speak about the emotions of the residents even when they are silent. The film’s use of long zoom-ins and zoom-outs paired with slow motion and other cinematic flourishes is the perfect touch to capture the Villages’ surreal atmosphere.
The sound editing and music by Ari Balouzian work hand in hand to accentuate the uncertainty and dreamlike state felt by the film’s subjects. It knows when to hold back and allow for the still and often awkward pauses. The score is reminiscent of the charming and manufactured exoticism of Les Baxter’s compositions, which could not be more perfect for this film’s setting.
The whole vision is perfectly brought together with Daniel Garber’s editing. It helps accentuate the natural sense of humor found throughout the film without being too ironic or cynical. The gentle pacing of the edits not only captures the eerie dreaminess of the Villages’ golden sunshine and perfect palm trees, but also the uncomfortable open-endedness the subjects feel as they grapple with life’s large questions.
“Some Kind of Heaven” is a treat to watch. It is funny and tender, shaping the mirage of a perfect retirement into something more human. The striking visuals allow you to sink into this land of quirky, Americana eye candy as its vexing underbelly is slowly revealed. Watching this film is like buckling in for an amusement ride and enjoying a bizarre trip through a fabricated reality, only to see the nuts and bolts when you exit on the other side. In the end, this documentary is a heartening watch, reminding the audience that nobody is alone in their worries about life’s closing chapter.
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