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America’s biggest retirement community stars in a new doc that plays like dystopian fiction

How a 20-something director made a stunning, uncanny film about The Villages.

A large group of senior citizens in cheerleaders’ costumes stand in a triangle formation.
Cheerleaders at The Villages, America’s largest retirement community.
Magnolia Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Villages seems like a place right out of a movie. It’s America’s largest retirement community, a sprawling, gated complex straddling three counties in Florida about 70 miles north of Orlando, and well known for its role in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win. As of 2019, the Villages had more than 120,000 residents, as well as a long list of clubs for them to join and activities to participate in: synchronized swimming, golf cart “drill team,” theater, religion, cocktail parties. Shops, restaurants, and a public square modeled after an idealized version of an American small town main street give the Villages a Disney-esque air. For some, it feels like a dream: a positive and peaceful place to retire and be among like-minded people, all of whom want to kick back, have fun, and live a happy life.

But as with any planned community — like a college, for instance — there are plenty of people who can’t, for whatever reason, buy into the fantasy. They may be lonely, or ill, or feel adrift in a world that is very thoroughly designed, but seemingly not for them. And those people live at the Villages, too.

Lance Oppenheim was 22 when he first visited the Villages, hoping to make a college thesis film about the place. He ended up crafting the documentary Some Kind of Heaven, a stunning directorial debut and the kind of work that far more experienced directors would be proud to have made. (Darren Aronofsky signed on as executive producer.) Equal parts dark comedy, loving character study, and suburban melodrama, it’s visually startling, funny, and moving.

Some Kind of Heaven follows several subjects: Reggie, who is experimenting with psychedelics, and his long-suffering wife, Anne; Barbara, who is looking for love after her husband died; and Dennis, who is living out of a van while looking for a wealthier woman with whom he might strike up a relationship. Following these people through months of their lives, the film at times feels like a dreamscape, like a journey through their mental and emotional landscapes, rather than just an observational film. It’s clear that the relentless positivity of the Villages takes its toll on residents, but it’s also a glimpse into an idealized version of America, and the fantasy at its core.

A man floats on a mat in a pool, smoking a cigarette.
People compare The Villages to the carefree life of a college student.
Magnolia Pictures

To put it mildly, I was bowled over by the film, which made me think about what makes people want to live in an idealized version of America and what communities like the Villages will look like in the future. Ahead of its release, I spoke with Oppenheim about gaining access to the Villages in the first place, living with rodeo clowns, choosing the suburban melodrama as a formal and thematic touchpoint, and what he learned about the elderly from making Some Kind of Heaven.

So how did you end up making a documentary at the Villages? And did you have an idea of what it would actually be about going in?

The more I spent time there, the more I realized that you couldn’t just shoot a vérité documentary — you know, just become a fly on the wall — for a few obvious reasons. One of them was that I stuck out like a really sore thumb. Anytime I would go anywhere, people would be like, “Whose grandson is that with that camera?”

But I also wanted to make something that spoke to the spirit of the place. In my mind, the Villages is a place where the reality that [you and I] belong to seemingly does not exist. They have their own newspaper that prints only the good news. They have a radio station that only plays the hits from the ’50s and the ’60s. There’s this deliberate gulf that they’ve created between their world and ours. So I wanted to make a film that could speak not just narratively to that idea, but also stylistically, that could riff off the reality of the place and the reality distortion effects. Not that this is a work of fiction — everything in it is real — but the way we’re framing things. There are reaction shots. I wanted to kind of do things that could play with the form that still spoke to the artifice of the place.

The four people I follow in the film are not representative of every person who lives there. It’s a city of 120,000 people. It’s hard to find one person who can embody everybody. I was looking for people who were on the margins, who didn’t exist inside of the same marketing brochure that everyone 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. I thought if I could look at the world through their point of view, the place would come alive in a different way, and it could feel more like the films that I grew up loving. Like Edward Scissorhands, the way suburbia looks there. Or how suburbia looks in Todd Haynes’s Safe. I was thinking more narratively about that.

But when I first got there, I just was chasing an initial curiosity. I don’t think I was like, “This is the film I’m gonna make and this is how I’m gonna do it.” It was a pretty organic blossoming as I was figuring it all out.

Many different kinds of connotations were hitting me at once while I was watching it. I felt like I was watching sci-fi, or a movie very obviously shot on a Hollywood backlot. Their whole town feels like a movie backlot, and it’s strange to look at. Did you know anyone when you got there?

I’m from Florida, but I grew up like four and a half hours away. I was hoping that my grandparents would know someone there, and they didn’t. So I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a natural entry point. I asked all of my friends, “Does anyone know anyone who lives there?” I knew it was a gated community, so I ended up just going on Airbnb and looking around. And I found hundreds of pages with people renting full houses or renting rooms, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” I was searching at that point for whoever seemed like the most entertaining Airbnb host.

I found these two retired rodeo clowns who were renting a room of their house. I lived with them for, you know, several weeks before we started shooting, just so I could get my foot in the door there and understand what the place was like. They were great. I gave them five stars on Airbnb. They gave me a 200-page packet of every club that exists [at the Villages]. From there, I started emailing people, and calling people, and showing up uninvited to places. Every time I would go to a club, I would introduce myself, like, “Hello, I’m a filmmaker, I don’t really know what I’m doing here, I’m trying to make a film, I don’t know what it’s gonna be about. The only way I can figure it out is if you tell me your stories. If you’re interested, please talk to me; if you’re not, that’s totally, totally cool.” It blossomed out from there.

But it was interesting — I only learned like midway through my stay that the wife had leukemia, and they were trying to pay for the medical bills they normally couldn’t afford. There’s an absurdist quality to this world, and there’s a dark, grounded realism. But when you see it in the context of all the revelry, the constant amusement, the pressure to have fun all the time — I was like, there’s something interesting in that contrast between those two things.

Whole genres of film have revolved around suburban life in America, and often they use the 1950s or 1960s as a touchpoint, as you said. The Villages is basically the same thing, recreated by people who actually want to live in that reality for the rest of their lives. And it seems like the dark underside is strikingly similar to what those movies often show. There’s the person who feels like they’re on the outside, the person who’s looking for love, the person who’s addicted to drugs. In this manufactured environment, all of those character types are so clear.

But one thing you do especially well in the film is use images to create comedy and irony. You use wide shots, for instance, that look at people cheerleading or driving around in golf carts for a “drill team,” and it’s just inherently funny to watch. How did you go about getting those images just right?

A lot of the movies we were looking at, movies I grew up loving, were films that attempted to explore some form of suburban life. When you think of the similarities between the “Morning in America” ad that Reagan put out, and the opening of Blue Velvet — stuff like that really stuck in my mind when I was growing up. There’s a video on YouTube that was one of the reasons I wanted to go make this film. It’s called “Come Visit the Villages.” It felt like all of those movies put together, an unironic channeling of those films. I wonder if the people who actually were contracted to make the videos were like, “We need to do it just like that.”

So the visual language emerged organically from the setting of the world there. But I wanted to make something that was able to engage or inhabit that marketing material landscape, down to sometimes using some of the shots that I would see in their marketing material videos. And then find ways to basically invert it, or turn it inside out. Seeing something a little wider, and then punching in on a little detail that seems off. Or looking at someone who, in a place where everyone is supposed to be having the best time of their lives, is having the worst time of their life. I was always looking for moments of disconnect.

There’s a lot of obvious ways you can make a film about the Villages. We finished this film in 2019; obviously, [a film could explore] all the political stuff going on there. There’s also a film that focuses more on institutions, maybe more of a [Frederick] Wiseman film, that could be done there, too. I feel like I attempted to make [a Wiseman-style film] when I first got there, looking at the institutions of the place, but I realized very quickly that I wouldn’t have the access I needed to do that kind of film.

I wanted to do something that was different from journalism. I wanted to do something more novelistic, invest in the interior lives of people in a way you would see more in a narrative film or in a novel. That’s how we thought about the visual language. I was looking at the color palette of Douglas Sirk movies. I was looking at the photographs of Larry Sultan. He has a series called “The Valley.” He was doing behind-the-scenes work on porn sets in the in the ’70s and ’80s, riffing off the lighting fixtures and stuff that were set up [on the porn sets]. There’d be a shot that was already set up by the porn director, and he would go in behind the scenes and use their same light fixtures, maybe turn things around a little bit, and take these amazing behind-the-scenes images that call into question the entire fantasy of porn. I liked those ideas of how to do something a little bit subversive, while still making something that any Villages resident could see and say, “Oh, this looks so familiar.” Something that kind of could delight both worlds.

I was thinking about what it must be like to shoot there. On the one hand, your youthfulness might lead people to let their guard down because they are talking to someone who’s “just a kid.” But on the other hand, especially in a place that’s so famously conservative, you hauling a camera around might mark you as someone to distrust.

When I first started making this film, it was my college thesis. So I was going there under the understanding that this is my thesis film, and I’m a college student. Then I kept going back. I felt like a child actor. One thing that was interesting about it was that I was a similar age to the age that everyone in the Villages was trying to return to. Someone in the film says that [moving to the Villages] is like returning back to college. That’s the structure of the place — finding your flock when you join a club. Finding fulfillment within a collective unit, rather than through something you do individually. That rang true to my college experience in a lot of the same ways — it gave me a lot of stress and existential anxiety.

I think the relationships I formed with the main subjects may have come from the fact that I was younger. I was an unexpected outsider to be arriving on their doorstep. And they realized that I was doing everything in my power to not make a film that was criticizing them, or judging them, or doing anything like that. It felt like age didn’t really matter anymore.

I told them this when we were making the film, but the film we wanted to make wasn’t about elderly people. It was just about people. All too often, I feel like movies about the elderly defang them. They make them look like they’re going on these simple, inoffensive adventures. Not that The Mule is a tentpole of cinematic greatness, but I do feel like very few movies [about elderly people] are like that film. I see [my subject] Dennis like Clint Eastwood’s character in that movie — he’s kind of a trickster, and he uses his age to convince people to give him things.

An elderly man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a fishing cap stands outside a van.
Dennis, who lives in his van in the Villages.
Magnolia Pictures

When it comes to politics, the Villages is a conservative Mecca. Even the marketing materials, the syntax, is so conservative. The idea of trying to recreate an America of a different time. How white the place is. We never followed a character who was talking about Trump, and erased [Trump] from the edit ... I wanted to make something that didn’t explicitly mention Trump, that hopefully could be more timeless, but I also didn’t want to make something that was apolitical. So I hope that when people see it, they’ll be able to engage more with the ideas behind why this demographic would be obsessed with something like that, rather than making a more explicit political portrait, the kind you kind of see a lot in the news.

That’s a powerful thought — that the nostalgia they’re putting themselves into is a purposeful bubble. I guess that’s why the movie also feels like it’s playing with the line between what’s utopian and what’s dystopian. To me, it looks very dystopian. I can’t imagine wanting to live there. But other people look at it and see it as utopian, the way they might spend their whole lives trying to recreate their college experience.

There’s “The Villages” TV [channel, which only plays good news], and when we were trying to decompress and watch it, it really felt like we were in a dystopia. It was very weird. There were scenes where I felt like I was living in a Paul Verhoeven world. You’re totally right: So many people, I think, are attracted to live there because they want to be told what to do and how to live. If you’re able to relinquish any sense of your own individual self to live in this collective bubble, I’m sure, there is probably some kind of euphoria that I don’t personally think I would feel if I were to live there.

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. Those are the types of questions that initially drew me to make this film in the first place.

I wonder if it’s also a Floridian desire. So many people are moving here, especially retirees, but also people who are motivated by a desire to escape to warmer climates and be in the sun. The whole thing with “Florida man” is that there are people who obviously spend too much time in the sun, and their brain chemistry has been completely mixed up. They’ve just been here too long.

When I was thinking about making this film, I made a short film about a retiree who had been living exclusively on Royal Caribbean cruise ships for the past 20 years. There were similar qualities there. For him, it was a utopia. This floating city, where people were doing, like, Sexiest Man competitions, and eating giant hot dogs and spilling ketchup all over their faces. For him, that was home. For me, as an outside observer, it was easy to be like, “Wow, this would be my worst nightmare.” So there were some elements of this here, too: How do I make something that can soberly show some of these things while resisting the urge to condemn or judge? That’s probably one of the easiest things you can do in a documentary — make someone look foolish, you know?

Yes. And as you said, it’s especially easy to do that with elderly people. We’re just not good at dealing with or even looking at aging in America. Do you feel like you learned anything about older people as you made the film that you weren’t expecting to learn?

I feel like if I hadn’t, then I would have made something I wouldn’t have been proud of. Going into it, I initially saw it as being the lengths people, especially the elderly, will go to in an attempt to transcend the downsides of aging. The whole idea of “graceful aging” is not a real thing. I don’t really think there is a way to gracefully do it. If you’re lucky enough to get to that age, and you’ve lived a long life, it’s really brutal. You lose all your friends, you lose your spouse, you lose your sense of self. If you’re not physically able at that point in time, then you’re just kind of waiting. So I do understand why so many people there are very protective of this space, a world in which they can do all those things before they’re infirm and they can’t go out anymore.

The one thing, which may seem really trite or simple — growing up around my grandparents, they appeared to me as older sort of wise elders who had tons of life experience to impart. And they did. But the thing that I learned here is that you can grow older, but you don’t necessarily grow wiser. There’s something kind of interesting in seeing an 84-year-old guy who’s still acting like he’s a 24-year-old bachelor, and in his mind, he’s still completely the same person. Even when you’ve arrived at those final few chapters of life, it’s totally okay if your life is still just as much of a hot mess as it is when you’re in your 20s. A lot of shit in life is not going to be figured out, ever. It may be a depressing thing. Some audiences who are older who see this film see that as a tougher thing to swallow. Younger audiences find it more hopeful, which is interesting, rather than despair about it.

A woman stands in front of a giant painted mural depicting a lush green scene.
Barbara, one of the residents of the Villages, has not had the experience she’d hoped for there.
Magnolia Pictures

I’m curious what the Villages will look like after the baby boomers are no longer with us. Will they be forced to recreate another era, like the ’80s or something? Will a younger generation even want to live inside of like an imaginary paradise that reminds them of the nostalgia of the past? Maybe. We’re doing it all online already. So many people are obsessed with Y2K and the nostalgia of early internet days.

The unfortunate thing about Covid-19 is that a lot of younger people are like, “Oh, it’s only the old people that are getting this thing! Whatever!” It’s unfortunate that that’s how we are treating an entire group of people. The Ok, Boomer thing was another thing; it’s obviously fun to poke fun at people sometimes, when you have different beliefs than an older generation. But it’s still an entire group, an entire body of people. So hopefully, after we come out of this, there will be large-scale kinds of reforms to the ways in which nursing homes work and assisted living centers work. That’s the other thing the pandemic has shown us — how fragile and not great a lot of those systems that we’ve been kind of relying on for so many years really are.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Some Kind of Heaven premieres in limited theaters and video on demand on January 15. For a full list of digital and on-demand platforms where the movie will be available to rent, see the Some Kind of Heaven website.