Who among us can deny the alluring draw of golf carts circling and darting here and there in formation set to the rhythm of their instructor’s whistle and shouted directions, “Ted! Ted!!”? Certainly not me. Only a couple seconds into Lance Oppenheim’s intoxicating documentary Some Kind of Heaven, which opens with the faint sounds of sprinklers and the not-so-precise driving of the Precision Drill Team, I was ready to pack up my things and move to a Florida retirement community, intending to pretend I was over 55 like Maeby from Arrested Development.
With producers including Darren Aronofsky, Some Kind of Heaven centers on The Villages, the largest retirement community in the United States, though I can’t imagine anyone else in the world wanting this other than Americans, and “America’s friendliest hometown,” though some recent explosive, middle finger-wagging, expletive-hollering golf cart-centric parades for a certain former President should certainly inspire a reconsideration of that self-proclamation. Filled with around 130,000 retirees, Florida’s The Villages, as seen through Oppenheim’s direction, is a surreal Americana utopia, a constructed faux nostalgia world set when America was great before it needed to be great again. It’s a mid-20th century dreamscape of well-manicured lawns, blue swimming pools, a town square with dancing every night, radio stations that only play music from the 1950s and 1960s, and buildings painted with half-convincing and slightly menacing slogans like, “What’s in YOUR dream?”, “May all your dreams come true,” and “Another dream comes true in The Villages!”
Obviously, with all this room to dream, The Villages is more than a little Lynchian. In Lynch on Lynch, David Lynch considers his childhood and its relation to his career-long fascination with the moment the American utopia slides into dystopia, when the mask of the American Dream slips. He says: “My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out–some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast.”
Though not as grisly as Blue Velvet’s disembodied ear or Laura Palmer washing up in plastic on the shores of Twin Peaks, Oppenheim too explores this contrast–the red ants–that break through the seeming perfection of The Villages. A crack exposing brick that’s merely a painted façade. A double lantern lamppost with one lantern broken and crooked. A man brushing his teeth in a parking lot outside his rundown van where he’s clearly living.
Granted, Oppenheim, who began filming this feature-length documentary when he was in college, introduced onto the Villages property by staying at an Airbnb run by former rodeo clowns (seriously), had a lot of material to work with and possibilities for thematic direction. The Villages itself is primed for the spotlight as a microcosm of the trappings of the American Dream. Even simply the history of its founding, originating as a mail-order business selling tracts of land in the 1960s then transforming into a trailer park named Orange Blossom Gardens. Eventually, after the mobile home park wasn’t making the big bucks, The Villages was born, conceived by Harold Schwartz with his son H. Gary Morse in the 1980s. As Slate explains, “They put in a golf course and didn’t charge residents for using it, and the lure of free golf became the first step in drawing tens of thousands of new residents. By 1986 they were selling 500 homes a year and adding still more golf courses, pools, clubhouses, recreation centers, theaters, even a hospital.” By the 21st century, the Villages not only has become an expansive community with rumors of rampant STDs thanks to those randy senior citizens but a political kingmaker, beginning with George W. Bush’s first visit to the Trump vs. Biden fanatic golf cart wars of 2020, which heralded such visions as one resident shouting “‘Loser! Loser!’…as he held his fingers in the shape of an ‘L’ above his forehead.”
Oppenheim, in contrast, avoids politics in his documentary, at least overtly. Though you won’t hear Trump’s name or see any MAGA hats or flags, clearly there is an implicit politics in a generation of people desiring to return to the imagined halcyon days of their youth that was never really like that anyway. This romanticized vision of a small-town America that may have never existed, but many are desperate to obtain and inhabit is Oppenheim’s focus.
Though referred to by Schwartz as “the Disney World for retirees” in archival footage, The Villages in my mind is more akin to Walt Disney’s hare-brained vision of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (Epcot), the “perfect Utopian city” that would be placed under a climate-controlled dome. Though perhaps not climate controlled, seemingly everything else in The Villages is, an enclosed world sealed off from the rest of contemporary America. Their newspapers, local news, and radio stations all provide positive news from the community. Even their PA system blasts jingles advertising The Villages over the town square. Freaky.
Imbued with an upbeat artificiality, The Villages can be utopian or dystopian depending on your perspective. Oppenheim is no stranger to this strange balance given his previous short film The Happiest Guy in the World, which follows a man who lives entirely on cruises. And certainly, Oppenheim found enough Villages residents to wax poetic about the invented world they inhabit. “Everything here is just so positive so I’m lost for words…” one woman muses. Another man, looking wide-eyed like a Steven Root character, emotes: “There’s no place like this. This is Nirvana!”
Obviously, this heaven is not for everyone. As Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry croons, “In every dream home, a heartache.” Oppenheim zeroes in on this heartache with four central protagonists that are outcasts or outsiders who don’t conform to the dream of the Villages. As Oppenheim describes to Vox, “I was looking for people who were on the margins, who didn’t exist inside of the same marketing brochure that everybody else did. When you train a camera on the Villages, all you really see is artifice. So I wanted to find real people, with real problems, in an unreal place.”
These real people start with Reggie, a mirror image of Alan Arkin’s character in Little Miss Sunshine if he traded the junk for weed and possibly a little cocaine that he forgot in his wallet, and his long-suffering wife of forty-seven years Anne. Though when they first moved to The Villages, Anne notes, “It was like being here on vacation every day, but it is not the real world…We live in a bubble.” And her bubble in particular is being slowly popped by Reggie. Driving into a sprinkler on a golf course with a loud “YEAAAAAH!”, doing Tai Chi in a pool during a thunderstorm, and telling a judge, “I think you have a nice shiny face,” Reggie is slowly but gleefully losing his grip on reality to the dismay of Anne (“With Reggie, you have to be very open-minded. I never know what he’s going to come up with next”).
However, it’s not only the married couples that are straining under the pressure to conform to the fantasy. There’s blue-eye shadow-dusted Barbara, a former Bostonian who still works full time (to the horror of all her neighboring retirees) and is recently widowed (“I’m just saying for me, it hasn’t been the fantasy land I thought it would be”). Coming to terms with living as a single woman in this mock Nirvana, a place she never really seemed to want to move to in the first place, Barbara attempts to put herself out there by hanging out with Lynn, the Parrothead “Margarita Man” who is more than a little bit Moon Dog from Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum.
And then there’s Dennis, probably my favorite character (and he is a character) in Some Kind of Heaven. Dennis is a life-long 80-something grifter who migrates to The Villages as a “last hurrah” or really to escape a $20,000-$30,000 DUI charge in California. Living in his van on The Villages property, Dennis is looking to find a nice lady “who he wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen on the street with” and with whom he can spend the rest of his life or at least move in. As he says, “I just hustle them and talk to them and get them to invite me over for cocktails. And then eventually I can move in with them if everything works out alright.” Easy peasy! Though Dennis does eventually find a place where he can lay his head with Nancy, a platinum blonde pixie-cut Yeehaw fanatic, it’s short-lived as he has to choose between comfort or freedom.
Even though Dennis is a hustler and has some, shall we say, antiquated views about women, I found him endearing and likable, just like Barbara, Reggie, and Anne. Oppenheim treats his main subjects with respect and seriousness in contrast to the way many seniors are depicted in film and television as cute but dim creatures doddering about for our youthful amusement. Oppenheim lets us into their world without making them the butt of the joke. Instead, though this foursome isn’t necessarily as dark or lurid as the murder and suicide that shattered the utopia of Disney’s similarly happily quarantined Celebration community, their lives stick out like sore thumbs in the sameness of The Villages’ manufactured paradise. As Barbara says, “I think when you live in The Villages, you’re acting the part. Every day, every night. You’re part of the fantasy.”
This contrast further elevates the alarming artificiality of the retirement community and the ridiculous conformist performances required to fit in. And in representing the backdrop of reverie and relaxation against which Anne, Reggie, Barbara, and Dennis strikingly clash, Oppenheim showcases a spectacular talent in representing the absurd. This ranges from the Elaine Club, made up of women named Elaine (yes, it’s that simple), to a group of elderly women belly dancing to the splash of synchronized swimming to the organizer of a singles meeting vamping for the camera in sunglasses and a Rosie the Riveter T-shirt to H. Gary Morse standing in a fountain posing with the statue of his late dad to a church camel named Isaiah. Then, there are all those parties, including a shot of a woman shimmying backward while a man leaps over her. Man, The Villages knows how to party! Sign me up!
Even simply the aesthetics of The Villages is fascinatingly absurd. Though I love the particular rockabilly charm of the location where the drama club meets with its central photograph of Elvis reaching out to his fanatics, the strangest part of The Villages has to be its fake history. Though certain buildings boast names like “Historic Spanish Springs” or dates from the 1700s, The Villages is as historical as a roadside sculpture of Paul Bunyon at a Midwestern car wash. H. Gary Morse explains in Some Kind of Heaven, “There’s a lot of history on all of the buildings. Different stories that have been made up over a bottle of scotch.” Slate provides more details: “If you stroll around and read the historical plaques, as Jerry did, you find that the area had a fascinating history dating back to before the Civil War, full of Native American attacks, epidemics, shipping accidents, and odd characters like the guy who built a lighthouse on a lake and insisted he be called “the Commodore.” The stories are a load of hooey, concocted over a bottle of scotch and a case of beer by its developers.”
Rather than aiming for traditional documentary realism, Oppenheim matches The Villages’ naturally bizarre unreality with lush stylistic flourishes, from wry still shots to vibrant saturated colors, that lends itself to comparisons with a slew of other films and artworks. The broken dystopian suburban bliss of Edward Scissorhands, Blue Velvet, American Beauty, The Stepford Wives, Safe, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, and even a dash of Serial Mom. The heavenly mundane of Defending Your Life and The Good Place. William Eggleston’s mid-century paradise. There’s even a lingering shot of a ceiling fan harkening to Twin Peaks. And of course with its cracked American Dream, the film also recalls the mockumentary style of Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Though it’s shot more beautifully than most documentaries, this isn’t to say Some Kind of Heaven doesn’t also relate to others in its genre. It’s no secret that I love watching weirdo documentaries and I’d define all the documentaries I like as cult documentaries, even the ones that aren’t directly about cults per se. To me, Some Kind of Heaven is a cult doc. Though it doesn’t surround a singular charismatic figure or an all-consuming religion, to be a resident of The Villages means enacting a certain type of delusional daily performance: the attainment of happiness, leisure, and living your best life till the end of your life. Oppenheim describes this collective drive in The Moveable Fest: “From the first shot with the golf carts synchronized driving squad to the end when you see Barbara dancing with the crowd and doing the same kind of dance moves as everyone else, I think there is something interesting that the film is subtly saying about the question of the collective and the individual. If you’re able to subsume part of yourself and give up part of your identity to join this collective vision of retirement that you may find a happier way to live, even if you’re giving up part of yourself to it all.”
Even the aesthetics of the community and its “What’s YOUR dream?” propaganda reminds me of the similarly assembled look of the Scientology stronghold of Clearwater, Florida minus all the E-meters and stalking or Jonestown if it was fun, capitalistic, and oh-so-white. In these cults like Scientology or the Peoples Temple, of course, this façade masks abuse, coercion, intimidation, and a huge grift. In The Villages, the grift is more complicated than the will of a narcissistic, unhinged leader. In The Villages, the grift is the American Dream and the cult is a return to small-town mid-20th century Americana romanticism. And clearly, this cult is one America seems willing to risk democracy to maintain.
If Hunter S. Thompson journeyed to the savage heart of the American Dream and found it destroyed in a derelict lot outside of Las Vegas in the early 1970s (“a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of tall weeds. The owner of a gas station across the road said the place had ‘burned down about three years ago.’), it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say Oppenheim similarly reaches the heart of the American Dream almost fifty years later in The Villages. Or perhaps The Villages is more akin to Thompson’s jarring carnivalesque description of Circus Circus. Nevertheless, Some Kind of Heaven, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before it, seems to hit on some unsavory truths about what the American Dream means and looks like for a large swath of Americans. It’s a thinly veiled simulation. And a simulation that is eerily unchanging, as one conversation between a relator and prospective buyer articulated:
“And I like getting up every morning and being able to say it’s going to be the same way from house to house.”
“Today as it is tomorrow as it is next year or the next five years–”
“Ten years or twenty years.”
Of course, part of this is wholly generational–the baby boomers returning to the imagined safety of their youth (even if that includes a funeral pre-planning presentation at Ruby Tuesday). It’s interesting to wonder whether the subsequent generations will look toward the 1950s and 1960s as we age, solidifying that era as the unwavering and singular aesthetic period of the American Dream. I have a hard time imagining retirement communities for Gen X or millennials attempting to recreate the idyllic 1980s or 1990s…I’d rather hang out with Elvis.
But simply writing the attraction to The Villages off as Ok Boomer nostalgia misses a fundamental truth about just how American the drive to live in a constructed reality is. And what parts of ourselves we’re willing to sublimate to get it. Oppenheim observes to Vox: “But it’s interesting to think of this as a deeply American phenomenon, too. The images they’re trying to recreate are of a specific time and of a specific sort of American heritage. People trying to be patriotic in a certain way. But I also think it’s this desire to isolate yourself in this picture-perfect paradise, and not think about the consequences that would have on your family or your own mental health.”
As H. Gary Morse says of The Villages residents, while floating and smoking in an azure swimming pool: “They’re living their American Dream, as we are.”