'New York Times'-produced documentary explores life in Central Florida's retirement capitol, the Villages



The Villages, America’s largest retirement haven and one of the nation’s loudest right-wing Trump strongholds, continues to spark fascination.

Filmmaker Lance Oppenheim grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where he basked in the sun and went to school and shrugged off “Florida Man” news like everybody else in South Florida, but couldn’t help but pay attention to the headlines that streamed out of the Villages. The Harvard film school grad followed that fascination while putting together a pre-coronavirus documentary produced by Darren Aronofsky and the New York Times, the first feature-length documentary produced by the newspaper.

When he began filming, Oppenheim didn’t have a concrete plan, other than to see what happened when he went to the Villages, this place he’d heard so much about, and turned on a camera.

The result, which doubled as his college thesis, is Some Kind of Heaven, which takes a look at the many retirement activities and clubs before diving deeper to examine the lives of four Villagers figuring out the final stages of life while figuring out if they fit into the Villages.

"I'd been reading so many articles about the place that highlight its more hedonistic aspects," said Oppenheim. "I hadn't seen anything that examined what life was actually like there beyond the flair of really big clubs."

Since the summer of 2018, Oppenheim spent 18 months off-and-on in the Villages, renting Airbnb rooms with welcoming Villagers, including in the home of retired rodeo clowns. "They showed me the (Villages) world."

The documentary – a piece of loosely journalistic cinema more concerned with painting a portrait of a few lives in the Villages then with blackout screens filled with statistics – engages with but delves beyond the manufactured, theme-park sheen of the infamous retirement enclave to find those "on the margins of that fantasy," said Oppenheim, and learn about how people approach the end of life.

The 24-year-old director, following up a string of impressive shorts with this, his feature-length debut, found that people in the final stages of life pursue the things that adults always chase after: love and youthful, uninhibited joy.

"This is a movie about relationships, about maintaining existing relationships and how to find and start new ones," says Oppenheim. In the Villages, residents say, they are part of a passionate, engaged community of people in their own age range all doing things they want to do – and they feel young again.

"The Villages is a place that returns you back to time when you were younger," says Oppenheim. "The things I witnessed were things I was going through in college." Being around your peers, all fully committed to being in that place and having a good time, makes you feel like giddy like a kid, be it after orientation in the freshman dorms or after a choice game of pickle at a park in the Villages. "I went there thinking it'd be this foreign, alien place I'd have no relationship too," Oppenheim says. "There's a real normalcy the way people live there."

He added that his perspective was earned after staying for months. A visitor passing through might find the Disney-fication of the place strange or the political obsessives overwhelming.

"When you spend a lot of time there, aspects of that kind of fade away," Oppenheim says. "There's all these older folks acting like younger folks. There's a freedom to that, a beauty to that. It challenged ideas and stereotypes I had about aging."

"This movie is not about old people, just people who happen to live in this place," he adds.

The four main subjects in Some Kind of Heaven are an 82-year-old wanna-be gigolo who lives in a van and is looking for a wealthy widow to shack up with, a widow trying to figure out her new life and whether it fits into the Villages, and a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks – the wife is a typical Villager at every club event, while the husband dabbles with psychedelic drugs and wants to test the limits in his retirement.

Some Kind of Heaven, which had a successful, buzzy run at the Sundance Film Festival, was scheduled to screen during the Florida Film Festival in April. We'll keep you posted as to whether it will screen in the version of the festival very tentatively rescheduled for August 2020.

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