More than 130,000 people live in The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community, a central Florida bubble that may as well be heaven on Earth. Lance Oppenheim’s lush and immersive documentary “Some Kind of Heaven” says that outright in its title. But heaven isn’t paradise: Sure, fountains burst forth on palatial grounds filled with golf courses, swimming pools, and music venues. Much of the aging crowd likes to party. Within the boundaries of the four characters at the center of Oppenheim’s debut, however, late-in-life utopia doesn’t come easy.
With its vibrant sun-soaked tapestry and whimsical characters committed to an idyllic fantasy, “Some Kind of Heaven” plays like a companion piece to “The Beach Bum,” or perhaps adds some fragment to its expanded universe. At the same time, there’s an element of executive producer Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” to Oppenheim’s melancholic portrait of aging men and women keen on capturing the rascally, devil-may-care energy of their youth — no matter the risks.
Chief among them is Reggie Kincer, a zany 72-year-old who has turned to hard drugs to spice up retirement while his wife, Anne, looks on in dismay. Their dynamic takes a series of seriocomic turns, as Reggie’s eccentric and reckless behavior endangers their future (and lands him in court for one of the stranger judicial showdowns in film history). Desperate to live without consequence, Reggie is forced to confront the impossibility of that gamble, while the movie’s candy-colored palette provides the ultimate ironic contrast to his journey.
At the same time, he’s not the only one to blame for his actions. Reggie epitomizes the eager prospects of an adult playground promised by The Villages founder Harold Schwartz decades ago. His son Gary, who now oversees operations, puts the intent of the community in blunt terms: “You come here to live, not to pass away,” he says. “They’re living their American dream.”
Oppenheim backs off from interrogating the deeper ramifications of that statement, or how it might play into unique sort of national delusions that have divide the country. The majority of The Village residents voted for Trump, and many GOP candidates have campaigned there over the years, but “Some Kind of Heaven” hardly bothers with that side of the story. It’s an understandable omission, if only because nobody in The Villages seems to care about what happens beyond their borders. Hovering exclusively within their confines, Oppenheim develops an enticing, at times transcendent tone poem around the process of grasping for more life when it threatens to slink away.
The movie’s other subjects are loners: Barbara, a widow whose retired life in the community took a dark turn with her husband’s sudden death, wanders the estate at odds with the jubilance around her. Carefree bachelor Dennis, meanwhile, drifts around the property living out of his van while boasting of romantic victories, none of which seem to last that long. Their stories lack the same complex intrigue as Reggie and Anne’s marriage, but add to the overall tapestry of a movie designed to capture the uneasy dichotomy of easy and unsteady living at the center of this self-contained world.
Oppenheim’s bountiful footage and apparent free-range access to the resort-like community allows him to assemble a complex ecosystem around each portrait. Aided by cinematographer David Bolen and Ari Ari Baouzian’s hypnotic score, “Some Kind of Heaven” develops a surreal kind of awe around its unusual milieu, the impression of a place at once at odds with the universe and powerful enough to forge one of its own. Shades of Errol Morris’ first feature, “Vernon, Florida,” as well as last year’s “The Mole Agent,” crop up in the way the movie allows its idiosyncratic personalities to dictate the mood, which shifts from playful to tender and tragic in lockstep with their lives.
Ultimately, “Some Kind of Heaven” settles into portraiture over narrative cohesion. Its characters undergo some measure of evolution, but the movie mostly serves to capture the sheer insularity of their lives. Oppenheim relishes in the strange beauty of their lives with Rockwellian precision, and the bigger picture remains elusive throughout. Look closer, however, and the movie makes a sobering point, whether or not Oppenheim intended it — that the biggest threat to American identity isn’t confronting the nature of the society so much as the people who prefer to escape it altogether, ending their lives in solipsistic bliss.
Magnolia Pictures releases “Some Kind of Heaven” in theaters and on demand on Friday, January 15.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.