“Some Kind of Heaven,” first-time feature director Lance Oppenheim’s assured, deadpan, absurdist documentary about The Villages, features clips of the activities available at this sprawling Florida retirement community — the biggest in America. It’s the north-central part of the state, roughly midway between Tampa and Orlando.
A spry coach with a bullhorn barks directions to the Villages Golf Cart Drill Team as they are put through their paces; elderly belly dancers gyrate to “Let It Snow”; members of the synchronized swim team practice to Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain”; and a series of women call out “My name is Elaine!” because they are members of the Elaine Is Our Name Club.
And many dance to oldies at the singles block parties, which are a great place to meet someone. As one resident points out, there are 20,000 people without spouses among the 130,000 who live there, and so plenty of opportunities to find a mate.
The place combines the self-enclosed fantasy-land of Disneyworld, the dating opportunities of Club Med, and the kitschy, Panglossian isolation of The Village in the 1960s TV series “The Prisoner.” “Everything you’d ever want is here,” says one happy camper. “This — place — is — nirvana!” says another.
But there is trouble in this paradise. Some residents don’t fit in. One isn’t even a resident. These are the subjects Oppenheim focuses on.
“This is not the real world,” says Anne ruefully. “We live in a bubble.” She and her husband, Reggie, have been married for 47 years, and Anne was hoping that The Villages might help solve some of the problems in their marriage. Like Reggie’s increasingly erratic behavior, his drug use, his delusions, and his refusal to listen to her. Sometimes Reggie’s stunts seem amusing, like driving a golf cart into a lawn sprinkler. But their relationship takes a rocky turn when he is busted for possession and has to go to court.
Newly married, Barbara and her spouse, Paul, thought The Villages would be the perfect place to “get a fresh start.” She sold her house and they moved there, but Paul died of a brain tumor shortly after they arrived. She longs to return to Massachusetts, but she has spent all her savings and can’t afford to. Now she has to work to make ends meet. The activities don’t interest her, and she can’t get into the ubiquitous spirit of joie de vivre. “You’re acting a part,” she says about the environment. “You’re part of the fantasy. It’s hard to be alone in The Villages.”
While Barbara wants to leave, Dennis hopes to get inside. He wants to meet a “nice-looking lady with some money” and to do so hangs out at the bars, churches, and swimming pools. The last seem most promising, though when he regales one of the poolside dowagers with stories about his work in Hollywood and as a handyman for President Ford, the singer Barry Manilow, and the comedian Dick Smothers, she says, “I don’t care.” Until he can score a live one, he lives in a van parked on the fringes of The Villages and hopes he isn’t discovered and kicked out.
Oppenheim’s style and tone are similar to that of the early work of Errol Morris — a more upscale “Vernon, Florida” (1981), perhaps. He manages the fine balance between irony and empathy, cutting abruptly from one odd scenario to another without any commentary, except for the sometimes heartbreaking voice-over narrative of the subjects.
But he seems to be omitting an important part of the story. You might recall The Villages as the site last year of Donald Trump rallies and rowdy motorized parades by its golf-cart brigade. Oppenheim chooses to overlook this aspect of the community, saying in a director’s statement that he wanted “to tell a story that went beyond partisan politics and spoke to something that I found more existentially interesting.”
Now that the country has encountered its own interesting existential situation brought on by such partisan politics, Oppenheimer’s decision to skip this aspect of The Villages seems an opportunity missed. That self-enclosed fantasy world is not just a make-believe stage on which risible, good-natured, well-heeled oldsters play a part, but a microcosm of the retreat from reality that has brought us to our current crisis.
“Some Kind of Heaven” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, starting Jan. 15. On that site you can also stream a virtual Q&A with filmmaker Oppenheim, moderated by Harvard professor and filmmaker Robb Moss, Jan. 17 at 2 p.m.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.