A large promise ‘may all your dreams come true’ arches over one of the main foyers at The Villages, an extravagant retirement complex in Florida with nearly 80,000 residents. Equally colourful and spiked with bravado as The Truman Show’s Seahaven Island, the near 20,000-acre compound is a peculiar dream-made-real hosting the lives of those who would rather live in blissful, ignorant nostalgia. Their lives and Lance Oppenheim’s documentary works in an interesting juxtaposition to Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland, as instead of fleeing to the liberty of the wilderness, here, people surrender their freedom for the safety of fabricated commercialism.
Though, this is not where the comparisons end, just as the way Chloé Zhao melds reality and fiction to draw up an elaborate vision of modern America, Lance Oppenheim does the same, presenting a skewed reality where truth and artifice coexist. Panning around a circle of similarly dressed elderly women, each woman repeats as if in rhyme “Hi, my name is Elaine”, before joining in unison to announce “Elaine is our name!”. This is merely one of many cinematically staged moments that work to establish a dreamlike sheen to Oppenheim’s sprawling documentary looking into life at the retirement complex.
Although these consistent moments are certainly enjoyable and work well to reiterate each resident’s own perceived inflated self-worth, they are also overly indulgent, with The Villages being adequately strange enough to warrant staged moments of insincerity. Such a choice blends the line between documentary and fictional cinema, creating a conflicting tone wrestling between honesty and fabrication that in some ways works to reiterate the compound’s nature described by one resident as “The Disneyworld for retirees”.
The landscape, including 50 golf courses, a polo stadium and 2700 social clubs, are captured in glorious saturated colour by cinematographer David Bolen, creating a heavenly ethereal dreamscape in which each resident exists in some kind of bliss. Capturing the environment in such a light makes it resemble a model village, constructed in good faith yet empty of any real history or community. Though, such a history is also fabricated, with various fictitious historical markers located throughout The Villages, described by Amanda Brian, author of ‘The Faux History of The Villages, Florida’ as giving the area “a patina of stability and continuity to a highly volatile region and stage of life”. Each plaque feeds into a fabricated mythos of The Villages, crafting an image of a nostalgic American past that no longer exists.
Housing a large population of isolated people, 70 per cent of whom voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the complex represents a deeply wistful image of life, both for the long-lost exuberance of youth and for a traditional American past. The Villages are a strange real-life depiction of Trump’s America in which individuals surrender to a fake, dreamlike representation of reality, rejecting contemporary threats entirely. Though whilst the contextual environment of Lance Oppenheim’s documentary is rich with such colourful content, the film itself focuses elsewhere and instead only flutters across the surface of its own potential.
Some Kind of Heaven feels like a glitzy introduction to something far more interesting, a summation of events rather than a breakdown of The Village’s sociological structure. In its own existence, it is a strange, disorientating piece of cinema that depicts the lives of individuals who willingly take a handful of ‘blue pills’, questioning could ignorance really be bliss?
Some Kind of Heaven available on Dogwoof On Demand and other digital platforms 14th May.