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.
Patti P. says
I do not live in The Villages, but have visited many times in the last ten years. I’m disheartened to discover that this documentary failed to delve into many wonderful aspects of life there: high level of volunteerism, cohesive neighborhoods who take care of each other, school supply drives for needy children, active religious groups of numerous denominations, and many other aspects of life there. Seems to me as if they were looking to highlight the “downside” of life in The Villages!
J Hall says
I agree with Patti P completely!
Susan Fentress says
You said it right, if someone is going to make a documentary, they need to tell the whole story!! There is more Good and Positive happening in The Villages that overshadows ALL the Negative!!
Born and raised in Michigan, it will always hold my heart, we found The Villages 12 years ago and permanently made it our home in 2011.
Our lives are Blessed and Full with ALL that we do and ALL that is available!!
Consider the source. This writer is one more urban studies, affordable housing community organizer. More fake news reporting.
In short = buzz kill riff raff Not to be taken seriously. Hopefully not to move in next door. Stay in your Urban Utopia Ezra. We in The Villages are having a great time without you.
I totally agree with Patti. We have lived here in The Villages for 5 years. We love our life here.
We couldn’t be happier with our neighborhood families. We are like one giant family who are here to help and support each other in all circumstances. You will find and see what you want while living here. Some bad, but mostly extremely good. The good by far out ways the bad. It’s too bad that the negative is always played up when there is so much good happening here.
The beauty, safety, love, activities, friendships, support, freedoms are unlimited. I wish someone could show the truth about The Villages. Yes, there are a few bad things but you learn to stay away from the things that you don’t support. There is not a place here on Earth that does not have a few issues.
ceecee brown says
Are activities in the Villages geared toward younger set (age 55-65) or can older seniors (age 72-85) find some activities that they can participate in?
Dorothy Rheinhardt says
I am nearly 89 and participate in field sports (Javelin, Shot put, and discus). I am not great, but enjoy it.. We have world class participants in various age groups. The swimming team is excellent, and there are many different sports. There are many clubs – just find one that interests you. State clubs, sports clubs, history clubs – I could go on and on. There is something for everyone and every age group.
gail j rushfallick says
I am 76 and one of my activities is Dragon Boating. I am now training for Pam Am nationals. see. Sparta 70 on youtube. One of many teams in the Villages. We gave competed againsr 40 year olds and won. Was on on way after winning Nationals to Vancouver before pandemic hit, worldwide competition was canceled. Niw training for 2021/2022. Come join us!! Staying young, healthy and safe.
Michael H says
As a resident of The Villages I can only say about this film: from the previews I had seen a year ago is HOW EMBARRASSING! How some 22yr old kid (or whatever he is) can even have a clue as to what he is shooting as a DOCUMENTARY is beyond me. It’s not a “DOCUMENTARY” it’s a story. I watched some of the filming while sitting at a local restaurant. The only people who will think it is “cute” will be the few 80+yr olds pushing around their 3 dogs wearing dressed hats and booties in a $500 baby carriage. You write in your “review” “And so we proceed to lean in and meet the very real people who live in The Villages” YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME. They are as representative of The Villages as Donald Trump is to the young democrats.
Bob Wolfe says
You my friend are the reviewer who really “hits the nail on the head”. Thank you!
Tom Kaluzny says
You are right on Mike. I also think that this reviewer is as out of touch as the producer. They write and film what serves them and their own opinions.
You are correct.This is totally fictional not a documentary. I was there for parts.
Carrie Lenz says
Why would anyone do or say something so absurd about The villages..this is all lies and the Morse Family should sue him for all he’s worth.. He is ruining their 3 generational reputation. People watching this will take this and believe it to be true..all I have to say to the the child who made this documentary is..KARMA HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE..
Donna Pedrey says
The Villages has been my home since 2004…people here (99% ) are kind, generous and good neighbors. We call this place “the front porch of heaven.” I know Heaven will 1,000 times better than The Villages…but I will love my neighbors until God takes me to my future home …in a place called Heaven. Enjoy the journey❤️Donna Pedrey
Mike Green says
Myself and my wife started visiting The Villages in 1999 when it was just past it’s infancy. We finally after several years renting bought a house in 2022. This was a major step for us as we are British – 4,500 miles across the pond and we can only visit (on our B2 visa a max of 180 days in any year. Over the years we have seen many changes mostly good and just a few bad ones. For me the bad ones include traffic and crowds – but I guess if you make the darn place so good then loads of people will show up. When we first arrived 466 was a 2 lane country black-top and LSL had a barn some cows and a few haystacks which you could see across the lake from 466. We have made many many friends and have had the time of our lives at The Villages – I’m also responsible for dragging a number of Brits across the pond to become village residents. From what I’ve heard of this film and reading the synopsis and reviews – it sounds as if it complete and utter rubbish and nothing like what the villages can offe. My advice to anyone thinking of coming to the villages is do it now !! Rent for a couple of months and get to really experience the lifestyle – it’s FANTASTIC. Sadly we can’t be there this year due to Covid but all our friends and neighbours have rallied round to help with our home – thats the kind of place it is.
Virginia A Higgins says
Ummm…..When did you buy your house? 2022?? Did you mean 2012??
Cindy Feh says
Unbelievable what one will do to “sell “ a film! So disheartened by this! Most people I have met in the three years I have lived in The Villages live their lives based on Judeo Christian ethics no matter what the religion. The amount of programs created by residents to give back to surrounding communities and the world is unprecedented in my view. This does give retirees a deep purpose to their lives. For you to focus, on three atypical stories and imply activities and hobbies are the apex of their lives, is so deceiving. It does sell films, though. A film about “giving back” would be boring.
Lynn Ann Bruns says
Right on. Cindy! I couldn’t have said it better.
Rosemary Sandefer says
I agree 100% with Patti — we’ve lived here for 12 years, have close friends, activities we 80+ year olds can enjoy and many opportunities to contribute to the betterment of of our community through volunteerism and financial giving. The producer obviously wandered in places in the villages that drew him instead of getting a broad view of life here. If the film is negative it’s probably because he chose negative people to give his examples. “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Carol Pirone-udell says
I have lived here for 11 years after retiring from very active life in New York. I visited The villages on numerous occasions before settling here. I chose The Villages was because of the active lifestyle that is offered. There are over 2000 clubs, Hospitals, doctors, shopping, restaurants, bowling, swimming, and golf to name a few.
All confined in The Villages. It’s up to you to be as active as you want or choose not to participate. There are many organizations and all denomination Churches. Folks in The Villages are very generous helping our Veterans. The children in surrounding areas and The community. They supply food to food pantries..donate school supplies… volunteer and do whatever they can to help neighbors and those less fortunate. So the director picked three stories that show negative results… but there is help for the caretaker and her hubby.. and also for the widow.. They just need to ask. So paint a true story of The Villages. And yes, there is some discord — but overall it’s a fraction of the whole picture.
my name is jan your article on the villages for instance tha t is crap i know that guy Dennis who lives in his van and hangs out in his van looking to prey upon the woman in the villages,he should be ashamed but i know him hes not, he comes on occasion to our village singles club mostly when he runs low on cash,he was telling me about making this story and his role in it,i told him he should be ashamed,h just smiled.he is just one of the negative cast of characters that live in here, its the disneyland for our elders and it lives up to its name. i like it here i think i will stay, i cannot think of any please id rather be,really how much fun can a person have, overall i see this retirement community as similar as a place to go and is treated like a resort! which i think is fun, and that is why its so sucessful.
I took Dennis in for almost a year. I know that this movie is nothing but a bunch of chopped up film clips. Totally fictional. He is an 82 year loser. I must admit that as a widow for only 1 year he showed me some fun. For some reason people like him, at least to his face.I am glad to have known him purely for the friendships I made.In the same respect I am glad to have washed that man right out of my hair. He taught me a lot about who to stay away from. BTW the trailer with the cleanup on aisle……is my home and my golf cart
Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse says
Just thought this should be kept in mind amid all the breathless testimonies to how much fun and togetherness there is at The Villages:
The Villages is 98.2 percent white
Frank J says
Is that intended as some sort of an accusation? Why is that at all relevant? Anyone who likes the lifestyle and decides to live here is welcome.
Arts Fuse Editor says
Just a fact …. some may find it relevant.
Mark S says
It’s a fact just as Sundays at 11:00 am is the most segregated hour in the country. Blacks go to predominantly Black churches, though all are welcome….and Whites go to predominantly White churches, though all are welcome. Another example is schools at lunch hour. BTW, from my travels with the Peace Corps State, etc, this happens all over the world, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, etc. We all (humankind) are similar and tend to congregate with our ‘tribes’ and people of similar thoughts, views, age, etc. That’s a human trait. As long as there is no discrimination, it should not be a problem. Many so called open minded people only want to congregate only with other so called open minded people. We all have flaws and beauty. We are human, Just a fact that you fail to mention.
Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse says
We are all human — subject to error, prejudices, and blindness. And note that the link I gave detailing the overwhelming whiteness of The Villages came from its own newspaper. No fake news here. The story reasonably acknowledges the need to do better and strongly suggests the presence of discrimination.There is a problem. Perhaps you don’t want to see it — but others do (particularly among the younger generations), and in the future more and more will. I am confident of that …
Lynn Ann Bruns says
You are citing an opinion in a letter to the editor. I agree we are all human; and I hope you are not blind to your own errors and prejudices. I have a feeling you are all about white privilege. Please do not inflict discord and bigotry where there is none.
Americans come in all different colors; as they should!
Denny Wilkinson says
Only been here 6 years, but have never had so much fun, been healthier, or enjoyed learning new things in my life. This film will strike a few nerves, and fade away like Bleshmans book. If it was as bad as this film seems like it might portray, why are so many thousands of people moving here each year?. Why is it growing so big that we need bridges over the Florida Turnpike? There are plenty of styles of homes to fit all tastes and wallets. Yes the yards are smaller than we had wherever we came from, but most of us were happy to throw away our lawnmowers, snowblowers, weed walkers, et. Some still do their own, but for 10 or 15 dollars a week, our landscaper always has our yard looking perfect. I’ll get my exercise on the courts, pools, our golf courses thank you.
And as far as pot stirrer Bill Marx, What’s your point? It’s not exclusive to any group, just that it appeals to some more than others. Why is Chucks Cheese 80% kids? Why are strip clubs patronized 95% by men and 99% of the strippers women? Why are Italians 83% Catholic? I know you feel your Post was thought provoking, but to me it was asinine and you were just sitting back waiting for a response. Well Billy, here’s your 15 minutes of fame. 😀
Lynn Ann Bruns says
Denny, love your post. I wish I would have read it before I posted my own!
Jim Swanson says
As a Villages resident, I would be thrilled for this east-coast elitists movie to be circulated wide and far and be believed by all the other east-coast elitists. The only thing that would make me happier is for the east-coast elitists already in The Villages to watch the movie and go home.
Susan Barr says
If you are White, Christian, a Republican, and have never lived your life in a diverse community with the larger worldview that tends to create, you’ll do fine here. If you are “other than,” you will encounter a multitude of uncomfortable situations. If you can look past this conservative bubble environment, and enjoy being with your demographic (age), which is so advantageous in many ways, you can enjoy the beauty, all the fun things there are to do, and the ability to socialize whenever you want to. However, it is true that relationships can be superficial, connected only to the activities one participates in. This was a lesson learned during lockdown.
This so-called “documentary” is a piece of garbage. My husband and I have lived in The Villages for 15 years and absolutely love it here. So many nice people to befriend, so many fun and educational activities. You can be as active as you want and as less active as you want. I’d rather be here living my life rather than up North sitting in a rocking chair with nothing to do and just wasting away. Whoever wrote the documentary is all wet.
Bonnie Stein says
The Villages and the Morse family have nothing to worry about. Someone famous once said, “Even bad publicity is good.” This ridiculous “documentary” (I use that term loosely) will encourage more conversation about The Villages, and more people will want to come check it out.
My husband and I moved here 3 years ago. In the year before when we were visiting and renting, we talked to people whom we didn’t know here. We said, “We know about all the great things about The Villages. Tell us three things that you don’t like about The Villages.” Most people said, “There’s nothing we can tell you, because there’s really nothing that we don’t like.” Most people said, “There’s no other place we would rather live.” When we pressed them . . . “Come on, there must be something that you don’t like about The Villages; tell us three things,” we got answers such as, “January, February, and March.”
When you compare The Villages to any other 55+ community . . . well, there is no comparison, which is why almost 130,000 chose to move here, at least for part of the year. If diversity is a deal-maker for you, The Villages is not for you. If living in a community with children is what you prefer, then The Villages is not for you. If big city living is your ideal, then The Villages is not for you. However, if your deal-makers include a safe, friendly, welcoming, affordable community with tons of opportunities for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual growth, then I can’t imagine that you can do better than The Villages.
This film was produced by a 24 year old. He’s smart enough to know what will sell. Who would go see a movie about the fun, joy and productive lifestyle in The Villages? If he wants to sell the film, he needs to make it enticing to the same people who like to read about bad, sad, and mad news. Happy news does not sell . . . except in The Daily Sun in The Villages. 😉
Ezra Haber Glenn says
Ezra, the reviewer here: I’m not sure I can speak to all the issues raised by these comments, but I do want to emphasize one point that was stated in the review, and actually comes through very strongly in this film, that I think seems to have been missed: rather than deliver a mean-spirited “straw-man” attack on The Villages, “Oppenhiem proceeds to subvert and complicate the story, delivering a much deeper, more nuanced, and profoundly moving experience.”
The film does portray sad stories and explores the difficulty of finding meaning in life, but that’s what it is to be human. The harshest criticism in the film is reserved for attempts to deny or ignore this existential reality — to distract us from deep spiritual work through consumption, alcohol, trivia, marketing, and pre-packaged Salvation — but the people (even the flawed ones) are all portrayed with love and empathy. If you find it shameful to be lonely or lost in the world, that’s a judgement you are bringing to this story; but the director uses these very human needs and failures as a starting point to connect with the people he filmed. (Something I personally find all the more impressive and admirable given his young age.)
It is very clear that many of you feel strongly about this, and feel that your home has been attacked by Oppenheim (and, by extension, by my review). But just as many of you criticize those who have not been to The Villages for forming unfounded opinions about it, I’d recommend you watch this thoughtful film before rushing to judgement about what it says and what it shows. It may not represent the life experience you have in this community, but it does perhaps represent one of your neighbors. Film can be a wonderful tool for connecting people with experiences that they do not personally have, whether around the world or just next door, but it requires an open mind. (There’s a reason we watch them in the dark without talking.)
As a long-time resident of The Villages, and award-nominated film producer, I just want to say that this review could only have been written “by” a terrible person. I don’t know you, Ezra – if that’s even your real name but what I would like to know is how much you are being paid by the Hate God and Hate America crowd. “Fake” NEWS indeed. Good luck finding a job at “M.I.T.” or anywhere else in the South (the “real” America). G/d loves you.
(FWIW, I saw the film and loved it.)
Christine Francois says
Jeremy (if that’s your real name), what make the writer of the review a “terrible person”? The reviewer speaks of kindness and the difficulties we all face in life as being lessons to be learned from a movie *you liked*.
I’ve been to The Villages and have relatives who lived there. It looked like fun, just not welcoming to people who don’t fit the majority demographic.
Christine, revisiting my comment, I realize it was intemperate. A have an old war wound from my time in ‘Nam that sometimes acts up, and makes me irascible. I appreciate your words.
I took Dennis in for almost a year. I know that this movie is nothing but a bunch of chopped up film clips. Totally fictional. He is an 82 year looser. I must admit that as a widow for only 1 year he showed me some fun.For some reason people like him, at least to his face.I am glad to have known him purely for the friendships I made.In the same respect I am glad to have washed that man right out of my hair. He taught me a lot about who to stay away from.BTW the trailer with the cleanup on aisle……is my home and my golfcart
My husband and I, who don’t live in a retirement community, found this film to be poignant as well as entertaining. I commend the people it profiles and their willingness to let their stories be told by a sympathetic filmmaker. I am surprised at the violence of the reaction by some of the commenters. Although the film has a definite POV, it also offers some positive outcomes. The married couple seem to have found common ground again and the widow has a genuinely moving scene in her acting class. The reviewer has offered an intelligent and sensitive appreciation of the film’s merits.
Ezra Haber Glenn says
Thanks for your thoughtful comments to this thread (which, I fear, has drifted a bit beyond the matter at hand), and for your careful reading of both the film and my review. Writers often imagine the attentive, engaged readers on the other end, and I assume filmmakers do the same; your comments gives me confidence that this is not just wishful thinking.
Mark Favermann says
I visited The Villages 6 years ago. My childhood best friend and his wife had lived there for about 5 years. He had died of long-term Parkinson’s Disease in early August, and I was asked to lead a memorial service for him in mid-September. The service took place at the Eisenhower Center shown in the film. Over 100 people attended. I spent three days in The Villages.
Initially, I was made aware of the utter creepiness of the place. After settling into my hotel, I went to a nearby restaurant/bar for a late dinner. I was one of the few customers, so I sat at the bar. After taking my dinner order, the 40ish bartender told me that he had worked there for about year. He asked me if I knew much about The Villages. He then proceeded to tell me that early on that he was invited to various parties that were key parties. The keys were put in bowls and chosen by various folks to give them random partners for the night. He stressed how wild the residents were.
Though there are many activities programmed, high culture forms are not included.Except for rare cars and a very few people on the streets, the community seemed to shut down at 8 PM. During the day, the lines of golf carts on special pathways were more or less silent. There are no children allowed, no mothers with baby strollers, children playing in parks (I didn’t see any parks, just golf courses), so there are no child sounds. The Village center and its stores and shops appeared very artificial –in fact, they had been designed by former DisneyWorld designers at 3/4 scale. Residents are very Trumpy and MAGA. Democrat is a bad word there.
I could go on, but I just wanted to add that The Villages have the highest level of STD infections due to unprotected, random partner sex of any community in the US.
My friend’s widow moved away in less than a year.