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‘Ignorance is bliss mentality’: inside Florida’s ‘Disneyland for seniors’ | Documentary films

In the Villages, central Florida’s sprawling, master-planned retirement community billed as “Disneyland for seniors”, there is one ubiquitous presence: the golf cart. The hybrid transport abounds within the Baby Boomer mecca that’s now bigger than Manhattan (and, from 2010-2017, the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States), zipping among the complex’s lush golf courses and filling its miniaturized parking spots.

The cart is nearly a character unto itself in Some Kind of Heaven, Lance Oppenheim’s sly, remarkably open-hearted documentary on the Villages – it darts along postcard sunsets, past signs for “Florida’s friendliest home town”, circles town squares and loops in a synchronized cart parade. The cart serves both a utilitarian purpose – it’s a safer mode of transport than a car, especially as most residents travel small distances – and the symbol of a fantasy: why have a car if you never need to leave?

Some Kind of Heaven, the debut feature from Oppenheim and executive-produced by director Darren Aronofsky, traces the outline and underside of this arresting, distinctly American vision of marketable nostalgia, in which seniors pay anywhere from the low six figures for the promise of a permanent vacation. The Villages is “designed to hide all of the problems of everyday life”, Oppenheim told the Guardian, and it’s a popular pitch: residents now number over 130,000. Designed to evoke the manicured streets and small-town familiarity of Reagan’s “morning in America” ad, it’s also a fundamentally conservative fantasy; over 98% of the residents are white, and Villagers voted overwhelmingly – nearly 70% – for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

That fantasy of sustained, uninterrupted comfort has its pull, which courses throughout Some Kind of Heaven’s shots of watercolor sunsets and seniors letting loose to live music. “There was something relatable about living in a bubble,” said Oppenheim, a south Florida native who began the project in 2018 as a short for his college thesis. Yet “there’s something deeply terrifying about the fact that this is a utopian/dystopian experiment that is so wildly successful that a whole demographic of people have chosen to live inside of something like this.”

In atmospheric, sumptuous shots that lean into the artifice of the town’s twilight visions, Some Kind of Heaven zips between activities that play like a college fair for seniors – martial arts instruction and majorettes, dance classes and tambourine groups, pickleball and water aerobics, margarita mixers and dances any night of the week. The convivial scenes offer a vision of life in the sunset years delightfully at odds with cultural assumption of old age – that it would be devoid of parties, sex, drugs, the capacity for new hobbies — framed by palm trees and watercolor skies, all while embroidering said vision with the tribulations of four actual seniors who “call into question the marketing brochure fantasy”, Oppenheim said.

Where other films and investigations have focused on the Villages’ rapid, billion-dollar development, its stark political fault-lines, or its ugly and very real racism, Some Kind of Heaven slinks through the illusion, tracing the currents of desire, confusion and frustration that undercut it. “It’s very easy, obviously, to make any documentary subject, but especially people who are in the Villages, to look foolish,” Oppenheim said. “I wanted to make a film that was not about elderly people; I just wanted to make a film about people, whose desires to live and express themselves were not really that dissimilar to our own.”

Filmed over 18 months between 2018 and 2019, Some Kind of Heaven primarily follows four seniors on the margin of the fantasy. Barbara, a widower from Boston, searches for connection through seemingly endless extracurricular options and tires of the bubble’s performance of perpetual satisfaction. The bond between Reggie and Anne, married over 50 years, strains under Reggie’s derailing foray into drugs, agnostically borrowed mysticism and slipping grip on reality, as broadcast on his YouTube page. Dennis, a roguish charmer into his 80s, prowls the Villages’ manicured streets in his van, reeling out his worn flirtation skills for a female companion and, maybe, a backdoor into Village membership.

Dennis Dean
Dennis Dean. Photograph: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The shifting sands of Reggie and Annie’s marriage, Barbara’s bonding over Jimmy Buffett with a potential suitor, demonstrate how, as Oppenheim put it, “there is authenticity that can happen there, even in one of the most inauthentically constructed places ever.” Nevertheless the fantasy of safe spaces and Mayberry-esque streets promotes an “ignorance is bliss mentality”, Oppenheim said, “which really can start hovering over to just plain ignorance”.

In other words, the Villages’ often vocal Republican allegiance. Numerous journalistic features have documented the Villages’ increasingly hostile conservatism, its faux history, its relatively small upwelling of liberal activism, its financial ties to the GOP (billionaire founder H Gary Morse was one of the top Republican donors until his death in 2014). This summer, Villagers for Trump, an organization of more than 2,000 members, hosted a maskless, Covid-denial-filled event; a viral video, retweeted by Donald Trump, of another Villagers for Trump rally captured a man shouting “white power!” with fist in the air as he rolled past a Panera bread in, yes, a golf cart.

But the Villages’ explicit, often bumper-stickered political fault-lines never intrude on Some Kind of Heaven, which doesn’t so much avoid the subject as smudge the place’s fundamental conservatism – its focus on self-actualization through planned fantasy, its overwhelming whiteness, its six-figure barrier to entry – into a haze of sunsets in paradise, swimming pools and Parrothead parties. Though Trump’s name is never mentioned in the film, “I wouldn’t call this an apolitical movie,” Oppenheim said. “I wanted to make something that was more engaged with the ideas of the Trump presidency, or a body of people who do believe in those kinds of ideas that Trump believes in.” Make America Great Again does, after all, sprout from the same bedrock of constructed nostalgia as the Villages’ movie-set Main Street.

The “insane lengths people will go to to cocoon themselves inside of a fantasy or a dream,” he added, “felt so much more immediately interesting and relevant … than just making a ‘here’s the Trump club,’ ‘here’s the Democrat club,’ this is how they face off.”

Barbara Lochiatto
Barbara Lochiatto. Photograph: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Observing said cocoon translates into a remarkably un-condescending movie; there’s palpable joy to be found in scenes of conviviality between the people often shunted to the margins of society, dismissed as dispensable by the many during the pandemic, whose interiority, growth and capacity for change is generally masked or ignored. The Villages may be a homogeneous, Swiss cheese fantasy of the sunset years, but that doesn’t preclude the fantasy from holding some genuine revelations, often captured in attentive, warm closeup – Barbara’s acting class journey from passive audience to self-excavating participant, Anne’s ginger steps toward an identity outside her husband and literally dancing on her own in a crowd.

Ultimately, Oppenheim said he saw the project as “sort of a hopeful movie”, that revels in the fact that “maybe in your eighth or ninth or seventh decade on this planet, you still may be as hot of a mess as you were when you were in your second decade on this planet, and that’s totally fine.”

Whether audiences find that prospect depressing or soothing depends on one’s personal idea of what life could look like when there’s assuredly less time left on the clock than passed before. But the vision, however limited, of exploration and frivolity late in life tips toward hope. “Especially right now, when we have a lot of time on our hands and we’re stuck inside and we have to kind of find ways to improve our lives, I think the quest to better yourself is always a worthwhile one,” Oppenheim said. “Seeing that for elderly people should hopefully illustrate that point for everybody.”

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