By Ezra Haber Glenn
Like a day in a Disney dreamland, the “heaven-on-earth” glow of life in The Villages ultimately fades – quicker for some than for others.
Some Kind of Heaven was an official selection at Sundance and has been widely celebrated on the festival circuit, including winning the Best Documentary Feature award in Philadelphia. It will be released for wider distribution and streaming everywhere on January 15, 2021.
As Lance Oppenheim’s Some Kind of Heaven opens, we are treated to a beautifully shot montage of life in The Villages, Florida’s celebrated (and occasionally maligned) retirement community. Pastel-hued images wash past while schmaltzy music plays in the background. The visuals suggest the triumph of “sameness”: synchronized swimmers in a pool, rows of seniors awkwardly learning the steps of the Macarena, a carefully coordinated practice session of the “Villages Precision Golf Cart Drill Team” driving in tight formation (this is a real thing – check it out here).
These repetitive images – topped off with a club meeting for two dozen women, all named “Elaine” – seem perfectly calibrated to serve as exhibits A though J in the time-worn case against suburbia in general, and its exclusionary (and often conservative-leaning) sub-genre, the planned retirement community, in particular. One suspects another documentary hatchet-job is in the works; buckle-up for the standard criticism of suburban communities as boring and conformist. Although the residents testify (with all the earnestness of a promotional marketing video) that The Villages is a “Nirvana” that “you would never have to leave,” we know what is really being presented: “Little Boxes” for the elderly.
And yet, thankfully, after efficiently establishing a standard critique in just five minutes, Oppenhiem proceeds to subvert and complicate the story, delivering a much deeper, more nuanced, and profoundly moving experience. As we lean in closer, open the doors, and get to know the residents of this Nirvana as individuals – not as easily-lambasted stereotypes, butts-of-jokes, or straw-men to support the old antisuburban polemics – what emerges from the apparent conformity are some very complex, intriguing – and refreshingly, surprisingly, and tragically human – people.
Started as a simple trailer park in the ’60s but steadily expanded over the following five decades by visionary founder-developer-salesman Harold Schwartz and his son, The Villages is now home to more than 125,000 mostly elderly residents – and it’s still growing. (For the past decade, it’s been listed as one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.) But this is much more than just a booming retirement community for communally minded retired boomers: it is a complete, full-service city, with supermarkets, public transportation, an active continuing-education program, sports teams, and a host of clubs and civic associations (The Villages even boasts a complete media ecosystem, including a cable TV channel, a radio station carrying Fox news, and its own newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun.)
As the film strives to make clear, life in The Villages is anything but dull: in fact, there is so much to do that one senses these retirees are busier here than when they were working. And yet amid all this activity – this endless supper of self-enrichment classes and “Parrot-Head” margarita parties and revivalist church meetings – an elemental unanswered question lingers naggingly in the background, the foreboding gray lining on their silver cloud, the inescapable existential crisis that haunts this Edenic paradise at the end of the American Dream: “What is the meaning of all this?”
The first hints to the pervasive emptiness of The Villages are the visual clues dropped by Oppenheim’s clever cinematography, conveying the artificial nature of the development’s design. The integrity of a real place is grounded in an actual past, a history that slowly changes over the years. Organic processes leave echoes and traces of the passage of time. But here – as with many over-marketed New Urbanist developments – planners have opted for a shortcut: this “place” has been conjured up through branding – corporate “placemaking” – where history has been replaced with a simulacrum of “historicity,” a veneer of reality, a facade of community. Downtown buildings offer a pastiche of “traditional” architectural styles – and even sport fake “Est’d.” dates on their cornerstones and show intentional “wear and tear aging” reminiscent of stonewashed blue-jeans – to convey the look, if not the feel, of the small-town, “Main Street USA” community-character of yesteryear. Time and again, the camera captures images of the residents against murals or other backdrops, an ever-present reminder of the falseness of this entire landscape.
But as actually lived by the residents – and not just marketed by the sales brochures – this “reality” rings hollow: “You’re acting the part,” explains one inhabitant, who may be oblivious to the ersatz nature of this (or of any) role, and yet has hit the nail on the head all the same: “You’re part of the fantasy.”
And so we proceed to lean in and meet the very real people who live in The Villages. Dennis Dean, a down-and-out “Con Juan,” who lives in his van and prowls the poolside bars and churches, ever on the make for a lonely widow to take him in and be his next meal ticket. Reggie Kincer and his long-suffering wife Anne, married for 47 years; they are struggling to understand his increasingly unstable and disturbing behaviors, which evolve from self-taught meditation and erratic ramblings to self-harm and a drug-addled thrill-seeking binge that ends with him facing criminal charges. Barbara Lochiatto, the moral core of the film, is a shattered human bundle of sadness and pathos who retired to The Villages with her lifelong husband only to lose him, and – having run through their life savings – finds herself drifting, unconnected, lost, and very much alone, looking for a way back to community – or even just a single love connection. (All three stories showcase similar, unfortunate gender dynamics of freewheeling men acting unreliably, leaving women to hold things together while bearing the brunt of the costs and consequences, but neither side is thriving.)
Like a day in a Disney dreamland, the “heaven-on-earth” glow of life in The Villages ultimately fades – quicker for some than others – and rather than rich fulfilling nourishment we are left with nothing but the sickly false taste of artificial sweeteners. Alas, it would seem, humans are not so easily fooled by murals and mirages, by facades and fabrications, try as we might to self-deceive. Somewhere deep down, our inner souls crave the sustenance of real community and honest spiritual meaning; we are not easily satisfied with a fiction or a lie.
Yet, in many ways, this realization is both the most heartbreaking and the most reassuring aspect of Some Kind of Heaven. Tracing these three stories – all different, yet all seeking some meaning here in “God’s Waiting Room” – we recognize the deeper, more fundamental human needs we all share. We may be tricked for a while by clever design or slick marketing, but in the long run we are never fully satisfied, regardless of whether the product is retirement homes, margaritas, or even prepackaged religion. In the end, we want to connect with other people, to matter in the world, and to feel in our heart and soul that life is meaningful. Even in retirement, this real work still goes on.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a course on “The City in Film” and coordinates an ongoing Urban Planning Film Series. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Atlantic‘s CityLab, the New York Observer, Experience Magazine, and Next City. He is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine. He lives in Somerville, where he serves on the Board of Directors for the Somerville Community Corporation, a local nonprofit committed to affordable housing and community empowerment.