An exception to the US Fair Housing Act of 1968 — which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, sex, or national origin — allows for communities consisting purely of adults 55 and older. From this loophole yet another land boom in Florida was born, as retirees from out-of-state came in search of warmth, low taxes, and the legendary Fountain of Youth. The most famous “active aging” community is The Villages on the outskirts of Orlando. Its 80,000 overwhelmingly lily-white residents average 72.6-years-old, almost twice the average age of Americans.
Popular depictions of
The Villages nearly always focus on the golf carts and, in recent years, the Trumpian Make America Great Again ethos. (See this distinctive and terrifying 2020 Trump rally at The Villages.) These are the overworked visual shorthands, much like vibrantly painted vintage cars and murals of Che Guevara are symbols of Havana. These images tell a story but an incomplete one. Meanwhile, it’s well-trod comedy terrain to gawk at the crotchety and out-of-touch elderly in Florida, where many family members go to see their grandparents in their final years — sadness morphed into dismissal.
Some Kind of Heaven from Magnolia Pictures and The New York Times could have easily gone in this reductive direction. Instead, the debut from Florida-native Lance Oppenheim is a touching and at times anxiety-inducing portrayal of The Villages that reveals how age does not necessarily bring all the answers.
The first few minutes portray a glorious place where advancing years are no obstacle to having fun. An obligatory golf cart scene shows a coach wearing a pristine white polo shirt directing a fleet as they move in a tight circle. Synchronized swimmers practice a routine in matching one-piece bathing suits and rubber caps. An anonymous resident voices that The Villages is like “college” — everyone can be who they want to be, no longer burdened by the past. Another likens it to “nirvana”. These early scenes feel like cuts from an advertising promo directed by David Lynch. Then reality strikes.
Anyone who has ever lived under the watchful eye of a homeowner’s association — which is most Floridians, not just those in The Villages — will understand how doomed their effort to fabricate happiness and harmony can be.
Spongebob Squarepants fans might be reminded of Squidward’s ill-fated foray to Tentacle Acres, a gated community that promised to keep out the disruptive spontaneity of Spongebob and Patrick. The dream life consists of a controlled schedule of underwater bicycling, interpretive dance, and clarinet performances at the bandstand. Squidward’s demeanor begins to slip as the repetitive perfection drives his normally mild-mannered and smug character to the brink of madness.
Some Kind of Heaven‘s cameras primarily follow four “Villagers”: septuagenarian psychonaut Reggie and his remarkably patient wife Anne; widower seeking belonging and kinship Barbara; and involuntary van-lifer Dennis. Like most good documentaries, the focus remains on their faces a couple of seconds after their composed statements, revealing a deeper truth behind what they say.
Barbara is the first to admit that The Villages has not been the fantasy that she expected. Her husband died soon after they arrived in town from Massachusetts after years of careful planning and preparation. One morning, she watches herself and her deceased perform their wedding vows on a tablet over breakfast. The dog, sitting on top of the dining table, is Barb’s only company.
Anne sets up pictures of anniversaries past in the hopes that these memories would crack through Reggie’s perpetual high. When he finally gets home, he is in the middle of a bad trip, doubtful that he is even alive. His wife’s needs are the furthest thing from his drug-addled mind.
Dennis trolls the bars, churches, and swimming pools for “a classic lady” that must be attractive, wealthy, and give him a bed to sleep on. All his prospects have been around long enough to recognize a mooch and lifelong f**kboy when they see one. His mantra of “live fast, love hard, die poor” has left him living in his van parked at a storage unit facility, calling every contact on his phone in search of a place to sleep for a few nights.
None of these narratives match the meticulously assembled vision of the America that The Villages’ developer Harold Schwartz had in mind when he started buying hundreds of acres of central Florida marshland. To complement the town’s small-town, mom-and-pop mythos, stories were drunkenly conceived about its history. Many buildings in the town square are painted to resemble layers of heritage, a far cry from the prefab reality. At the center of the square, Schwartz’s bronze statue resembles that of Walt Disney — minus the child-like mouse, of course. Sixty miles apart, these men conceived of and sold alluring dreams.
The subjects of
Some Kind of Heaven (streaming on Amazon Prime at this writing) find that living up to Schwartz’s standard is much more challenging. A half-century younger than his subjects, Oppenheim shares their stories with incredible compassion. Their character arcs proceed to satisfying conclusions — with unfulfilling social club meetings, an arrest, couples therapy sessions, and lies along the way. Even the Villagers, deep into their lives, are still just trying to figure it out as they go along.
A few moments of good old-fashioned Florida weirdness and an abundance of women named Elaine do not distract from the empathy driving the documentary forward. At a time when our elders are dying at an alarming rate, fueled by society’s
callousness toward the value of their lives, this message could not be more vital.