review

A cheer squad in The Villages

In the opening scenes of “Some Kind of Heaven,” viewers are treated to the well-choreographed dance that is life in a Florida retirement community.

A parade of golf carts zoom along in formation. A synchronized swimming group splashes merrily in a pool. Later, an instructor leads a line of women in a baton-twirling routine. The message is clear: Everyone has a place here.

So what happens to those who can’t find theirs?

The documentary is produced by The New York Times and Darren Aronofsky, the director behind “Black Swan” and “Pi.” It is the feature directorial debut of Lance Oppenheim, a 24-year-old filmmaker whose Instagram account fairly screams “nice Jewish boy.” In interviews with various outlets, Oppenheim said he headed to The Villages retirement community in central Florida and showed up to as many clubs and events as he could to find his subjects and their stories.

The community, founded by Jewish developer Harold Schwartz, markets itself as a Disneyland for seniors, and one retiree likens the beautiful grounds, social activities and robust dating scene to being in college again.

While there’s nothing wrong with older adults keeping active and socially engaged in their later years, the residents of The Villages live in a bubble. Most of them embrace the insularity and predictability. Others, after coughing up quite a bit of money, find they have flown into a gilded cage.

The film, which screened virtually at the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Jan. 10-13, follows the lives of four residents.

Anne and Reggie are a married couple whose vastly different approaches to retirement strain their relationship. Anne, an athlete, takes naturally to days full of activities and dominates the pickleball court. Reggie, on the other hand, turns to illegal and recreational drugs as he pursues a vague sense of spirituality. Anne’s nerves fray as she struggles to make herself heard in her marriage and contends with Reggie’s increasingly severe delusions, which soon yield dangerous consequences.

Barbara is a widowed Bostonian who moved to The Villages with her husband before he passed away. Despite the fact that she is surrounded by seemingly infinite clubs and opportunities to socialize, she feels lonely and homesick.

Oppenheim captures Barbara’s precise and peculiar sadness at being alone in multiple crowded rooms; she is always a few beats behind at tambourine class or a few steps out of line when she goes dancing. She is also the only character who works full time, and the dreariness of working a desk while being surrounded by the trappings of wealth and leisure are evident on her face.

Dennis is not technically a resident of The Villages; he’s a van-dweller fleeing a California DUI fine and hoping to shack up with a wealthy lady friend. He showers at the pool and frequents bars and dances as he searches for someone to offer him financial security.

Having lived most of his 81 years as a drifter, he still dreads sacrificing his freedom for the comfort he craves as he ages. Although his gold-digging comes off as slimy, his vulnerability is sobering — a reminder of the dire straits that await those who don’t, or can’t, plan for their futures while they still have time.

The cinematography is gorgeous and intimate, full of surprisingly strong and coordinated bodies in motion, swaying palm trees and cerulean swimming pools. The last time anything this dreamily colorful hit screens was when “La La Land” was released back in 2017.

The juxtaposition between the manicured golf courses and the pained looks on the subjects’ faces never lets you forget something is off. It’s as if Oppenheim is challenging the viewer to distinguish between the constructed beauty of a fake-historic town square and the genuine beauty of the hopes and joys of its pedestrians.

At certain points, the portrayal of The Villages appears cloistered to the point of being oversimplified. The shots are scrubbed clean of any references to politics, with no lawn signs indicating the political divisions of the past four years. According to Business Insider, Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one in this community, and it has not been spared election-related turmoil and controversy.

Sweeping this reality under the rug in order to create a more universal narrative arc is the easier, if not most accurate or satisfying, storytelling choice. It would have been interesting to hear from a resident whose political, racial or cultural background added another layer to their sense of alienation from their neighbors.

Nevertheless, this intriguing, surreal documentary packs incredibly layered and nuanced stories into 83 minutes. The fact that Oppenheim was able to gain the trust of these retirees, who are separated from him by so many years, and portray their stories with such warmth reveals a level of empathy that is a pleasure to watch unfold on screen. JN

“Some Kind of Heaven” will be available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video and other platforms on Jan. 15. 

Sophie Panzer is a staff writer for Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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