It’s weird to read director Lance Oppenheim refer to his feature Some Kind of Heaven as “Spring Breakers meets Cocoon,” especially considering it really embodies neither.
Instead, it just comes off as a condescending statement about the subjects he’s documenting. I’m typically open to the separation of art and artist, but there’s something unsettling about a well-off South Florida kid making a documentary about The Villages, which has been called “Disney World for retirees” and casually ignoring that it is every conservative’s wet dream (70% of the area voted for Trump in 2016). Now, I’m not saying that a documentary necessarily has to engage with every facet of its subject, but the deliberate removal of any political discourse (or racial discourse, considering there’s only one single person of color featured in the film who quickly disappears after some opening statements) is a political statement of its very own (and a questionable one, at best). And despite featuring a man who lives in his car and a widow who explains that she can’t return to her hometown of Boston because her savings were spent moving and living in The Villages, the film barely engages with this idea of class inequality (both within Florida and even further within The Villages themselves), instead hyper-focusing on creating a deeply lonely portrait of people trying to exist within this space while aging.
The film seems determined to create a pitiable portrait of this loneliness, which is incredibly frustrating and cringe-inducing. As one character deals with what is clearly dementia (masked by drug use and negligence), was taken aback at just how often Oppenheim chose to lean into this man’s delusions by making them seem fantastic rather than tragic. The end of his journey is framed as something more upbeat than a life of casual complacency. And while there should be a certain level of distance between filmmaker and subject, I can’t help but find Oppenheim’s characterization of this man (and some of his other subjects) almost exploitative. This also ties into the inconsistency in style, which I believe the filmmaker prioritizes over substance. Throughout, Oppenheim is unable to decide which documentarian to emulate the most throughout.
Comparisons to Errol Morris feel lazy; as a friend noted, Morris would have mocked these people and their politics, though I’d argue he would have chosen much better subjects to mock within this community than people who seem largely at odds with the community itself. There’s some Frederick Wiseman, some Ulrich Seidl, and some Albert and David Maysles mixed in. The fact that this is a clearly studied filmmaker working with an actual budget and creating something with production value, and the slightest sense of humor, ensures that it is often interesting to watch, but it doesn’t commit to having any point other than “this place/concept isn’t as magical as it seems”. In fact, that being its only real thesis results in it having the same amount of depth as something like Sean Baker’s god-awful The Florida Project, with some of the footage used in Some Kind of Heaven feeling as calculated and manipulative as a number of the beats in Baker’s film.
Other, better filmmakers could have mined the Oppenheim’s subjects and their experiences and framed them as feeling marginalized within their own community in an interesting way, actually exploring their hesitance and frustration in a way that didn’t result in a gaze that feels more like a gawk. Wiseman, for one, would have done a much better job of exploring all facets of this community and how that ties into the myth of the American Dream extending to life after/during retirement. Some Kind of Heaven instead occasionally cuts to absurd scenes from what life at The Villages looks like for those who aren’t somewhat miserable there, only using these montages as brief contrast to the frustrations of its subjects.
Some Kind of Heaven initially left me thinking it was a unique portrait into the overwhelming loneliness that comes with aging, whether that involves feeling trapped in a relationship, being widowed, or expecting that freedom will keep you alive. As time passes, I realize it’s a shallow look at this, and ultimately an incredibly myopic glimpse into The Villages. Its subjects seems largely unrepresentative of what people in this community actually are, and maybe there’s something interesting in approaching this community like that, but I’m inclined to think there’s a mountain of wasted potential in how Oppenheim approached this locale.
Directed by Lance Oppenheim; 81 minutes.