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Review: Some Kind of Heaven Keeps Its Subjects at a Frustrating Distance

The film is most tragic and humorous when hints of the outside world break through the suffocatingly cheerful façade of the Villages.

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Chuck Bowen

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Some Kind of Heaven
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The Villages certainly lives up to its name, as this sprawling Central Florida retirement community is nothing less than a series of entirely self-contained societies, with churches, restaurants, golf courses, and shopping centers, as well as over 100,000 residents. Given America’s escalating inequality, which fuels generational tensions that lead to embittered catchphrases and memes like “Ok Boomer,” the Villages suggests found satire, as it’s almost literally a community of affluent boomers choosing to finish their lives with their heads in the clouds. However, the documentary Some Kind of Heaven takes the Villages on its own terms, resisting political editorializing for the sake of poignant and chilling character vignettes. Director Lance Oppenheim isn’t out to score points on his subjects or setting, an admirable impulse that nevertheless lands his film in a holding pattern.

Some Kind of Heaven appears to be inspired by Frederick Wiseman’s films, favoring a sober one-thing-after-another tempo that’s meant to gradually pave the way for catharsis. But Oppenheim lacks Wiseman’s ability to allow us to feel as if we’re discovering details for ourselves. Some Kind of Heaven’s compositions are emphatically symmetrical, fashioned by cinematographer David Bolen to recall the stifling social arenas of John Waters and Todd Solondz’s work. These images suggest an awareness of this pre-fab setting’s creepiness, yet this theme doesn’t evolve because Oppenheim offers virtually no details on how the largest gated retirement community in the world operates, reducing its infrastructure to a stage. Wiseman can pack a wealth of procedural and personal information in a seemingly off-the-cuff master shot—a technique that no doubt took decades to master—while Oppenheim and Bolen’s images continue to merely emphasize the inhuman pristineness of the Villages, which suggests a perversion of the dream of complacency that we are taught to strive for and envy.

Throughout, we’re introduced to a handful of the residents of the retirement community, who are generally prosperous yet unmoored by the prospects of death and physical and mental decay. Anne and Reggie’s 47-year marriage is stressed by the latter’s mental problems, which he attempts to address with DIY spiritualism and recreational drug use. Characteristic of this film’s wishy-washiness, Reggie’s mental ailment isn’t spelled out, though his eventual brush with the law is rendered with unforgettable found footage of his conversation with an unsympathetic judge. Reggie sounds deranged, yet the judge takes him to be rude. Does Anne help clarify matters? The answer is anyone’s guess, and while Anne admits to her anger with her husband throughout the documentary, she doesn’t expound on these feelings.

Most of Oppenheim’s other subjects are similarly matter-of-fact yet opaque about their frustrations. After decades of ups and downs, these people have refreshingly little room for melodramatic self-pity, yet what do they think and feel? Do they read, watch the news, TV or movies? What are their political views and senses of humor? Oppenheim defines them only by the straightforwardness they affect in order to obscure their melancholia. Most of the people we meet here are calcified by lingering disappointment—reducing everything, especially coupling, to transactional dimensions—yet Oppenheim, mistaking a lack of curiosity for empathy, doesn’t plumb it. The found courtroom footage of Reggie’s trial, shot at a distance from a high angle, comes to suggest Oppenheim’s own distance from his subjects.

Some Kind of Heaven is most tragic and humorous when allowing hints of the outside world to break through the suffocatingly cheerful façade of its setting. For instance, Dennis is an 81-year-old hustler who pretends to live in the Villages, sleeping in his van and hitting up social events in the hopes of landing a rich woman. In the midst of this film’s stifling generality, Dennis’s shamelessness is invigorating and scary, suggesting the fate awaiting those of us who’re unable to play the 401K game. Old enough to be a great grandfather, Dennis still calls his mother to lie about his job prospects, though she sees through him, asking with amusement how many women he’s living with. Dennis is bracingly vulgar in his desperation, moving from scam to scam, which commands Oppenheim’s interest in a way the other subjects do not. The filmmaker understands that Dennis’s self-inflicted dire straits have served to maintain a ridiculous yet not entirely inglorious kind of youth, while the film’s more comfortable subjects appear to have little to do apart from awaiting their funerals. Which is to say that Some Kind of Heaven is ultimately, perhaps inadvertently, satirical in nature.

Director: Lance Oppenheim Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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