'Some Kind of Heaven': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A mythbusting character study from a wise young filmmaker.
1/26/2020

Director Lance Oppenheim debuts a complex portrait of a Florida retirement community in his new doc.

Fresh out of Harvard, 23-year-old director Lance Oppenheim quickly dispenses with any facile or reductive ideas about aging gracefully in his first feature-length documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, a look inside the nation’s largest retirement community.

A so-called “fountain of youth,” as one resident describes it in the darkly upbeat film, Central Florida's The Villages is home to over 130,000 residents who can choose to fill their ample free time with thousands of activities, everything from synchronized swimming to acting classes, not to mention live music and dancing seven nights a week. But the people Oppenheim trains his camera on aren't passing their golden years in quite as idyllic a fashion as The Villages' brochures and 401K plan advisors would lead one to believe.

At its core, Some Kind of Heaven is about relationships: how to maintain existing ones as they change and how to remain open to the new ones forged at The Villages. Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years, but now find themselves in couples counseling as Reggie’s court date for cocaine possession looms. Barbara is a recent widow who still works full-time and wants to start dating again. And serving as more proof that people can refuse to grow up no matter how old they are, 81-year-old Dennis spends his days by the pool pursuing his goal of landing a rich woman to shack up with so he can move out of his van that he illegally parks on the grounds. The pic’s washed-out color palette feels like a visual metaphor for what the film wants us to understand: Life's gray areas don't become any more black and white as you age — even in sunny Florida.

Oppenheim and cinematographer David Bolen weave together sit-down interviews with footage of the subjects immersed in the world of "Florida’s friendliest hometown.” The film mostly gets the balance right between shots of, say, adorable old ladies in golf carts and thoughtful inquiry into the seldom-discussed realities of aging and retirement. The dreamy, orchestral score with harp inflections that invoke Old Hollywood captures the tension between the sunny, polished exterior of The Villages and its harsher day-to-day realities. Oppenheim and composer Ari Balouzian conceived of the score as an integral part of the story they wanted to tell, and it shows. Documentary filmmaking could use a lot more thoughtfully executed musical scores like this one.

There’s a lot of dancing in this movie, and it turns out that watching old people dance in an authentic way is really enjoyable. The film shines a light on the physicality that its subjects still possess, and it’s a relief that Oppenheim refuses to turn them into objects of ridicule. In one scene, the live music at a social event gradually begins to affect Anne, who, sans Reggie, looks rapt as she moves from standing still to full-blown solo dance. It’s a short scene that nonetheless buttons up her story simply but unforgettably.

Some Kind of Heaven is a solid feature debut from a bright young filmmaker who, despite his age, is able to expand our understanding of the complicated lives of older Americans.

Production companies: New York Times, Protozoa, LAMF, 30West
Director: Lance Oppenheim
Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Kathleen Lingo, Jeffrey Soros and Simon Horsman, Melissa Oppenheim Lano, Pacho Velez, Lance Oppenheim
Executive producers: Ari Handel, Brendan Naylor, Morgan Earnest, Andrew Blau, Jake Carter, Trevor Groth, Tristen Tuckfield, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Orlowski

Director of photography: David Bolen
Editor: 
Daniel Garber
Music: Ari Balouzian

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)

83 minutes