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Some Kind of Heaven: Lance Oppenheim’s Melodramatic Tale of Aging in Isolation

The title of Lance Oppenheim’s hit festival documentary Some Kind of Heaven sounds a little like a Douglas Sirk melodrama from the 1950s, the kind a Fassbinder or Haynes might have remade decades later. And like Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, the phrase “Some Kind of Heaven” suggests an irony apparent to viewers but lost on its subjects. For most denizens of Florida’s “friendliest 55+ living community,” The Villages offers everything they might need or want, especially a felt sense of community, just mere steps away. But at the same time, they are one step closer to their own demise—living in “a kind” of heaven that is no heaven at all, facing their aging with all the conflicts and dilemmas their isolation heightens. And those are the focus of the delightfully melodramatic and moving Some Kind of Heaven.

Produced by The New York Times, the LA Media Fund, and Darren Aronofsky, and having premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Some Kind of Heaven is now available to rent on most streaming platforms. Floridian director Lance Oppenheim, something of a wunderkind who was making New York Times Op-Docs while still a Florida high school student, begins with a wide-angle view of The Villages, that central-Florida age-restricted master-planned community that Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene find so politics-friendly as to hold rallies there. Indeed, The Villages has become as infamous for those unmasked events at the height of Florida’s coronavirus activity as for its reportedly high rates of STDs and black-market Viagra usage.

A woman directs a group of synchronized swimmers in a ppol.
Initial images in Some Kind of Heaven focus on harmonious, synchronous activity.

Oppenheim leaves politics and scandal aside, though. The film’s opening sequences focus on the very kinds of harmonious communal activities The Villages advertises. David Bolen’s cinematography charts a symphony of sumptuously-shot golf cart parades, synchronized swimming, line dancing, and sweep rowing, all of them subordinating individuality to a purposeful but illusory conformity. One artfully composed slow-motion shot after another illustrates the graceful sweep of synchronous activity. But for the four individuals, though, that serve as the focus of Oppenheim’s narrative, life in The Villages is more problematic, presenting challenges that can’t be easily addressed by a synchronized swimming performance. Oppenheim’s intimate character studies—a troubled married couple, an isolated widow, a charismatic drifter—find The Villages to be a little less than heaven.

A man and woman pose together in front of their home.
Married 47 years, Anne and Reggie Kincer cope with Reggie’s pharmaceutical experimentation, philosophical ruminations, and social media confessions.

Long-married couple Anne and Reggie Kincer offer a study in contrasts. Dispassionate, reserved, and sensible, Anne watches television in one room as husband Reggie performs an odd and awkward yoga routine in the other. His pharmaceutical experimentations, philosophical ruminations, and social media vlogging put him at odds with Anne, with the community, and with law enforcement. When he arrives at his court date for possession of THC and cocaine, Oppenheim and editor Daniel Garber cut between Anne’s patiently waiting in her rain-soaked car and Reggie’s bizarre and inappropriate behavior captured on court-camera feeds. Reggie’s sometimes-addled antics may or may not be early indicators of dementia, but they are surely troubling to Anne, who finds herself increasingly divorced from the friendly community The Villages advertises. Bolen’s camera captures Anne alone, separated from others, in a series of images that echo the ways Sirk would isolate his protagonists from their communities.

A woman in silhoutte practices pickleball at dusk.
Anne’s isolation from her husband and community is depicted in a number of evocative images.

If marriage offers no assurance of contentment, Oppenheim’s singles are equally isolated. Barbara Lochiatorro, a recent widow, works full-time for The Villages Rehab and Nursing, still missing her Massachusetts home, her former life and husband—and her depleted savings. “It’s hard to be alone in The Villages,” she acknowledges. Barbara’s search for companionship takes her on an awkward date with a shallow Parrothead on the make before she finds a small measure of solace successfully memorizing and performing a soliloquy for her acting class. Drifter Dennis Dean,  meanwhile, has come to The Villages for a “last hurrah.” Having left his native California to avoid prosecution of a DUI, Dennis lives out of his van, slipping in the cloak of darkness from one parking lot to another to avoid eviction, popping out by day to try to meet a woman who will support him.

A woman stands in front of a mural depicting a pastoral landscape.
Barbara Locchiatorro looks for love and fulfillment in The Villages.

The Villages promises its denizens a “fountain of youth”—indeed, that is the storyline adopted upon its construction by founder Howard B. Schwartz back in the 1980s. But for these four, the “Disney World for retirees” isn’t so much a way to take back time but a constant reminder of the psychological and social realities of aging. The specter of decline looms over each of them. Anne misses the man her husband used to be before drugs took their toll. Barbara misses her married life and creature comforts. Dennis misses the easy freedom of occasional gigs and hookups. Uncertainty, regret, and anxiety abound. Anne, who at the beginning of the film seemed merely a superficial foil to Reggie’s weirdness, provides the film’s gravitas with her insights on aging. “There’s just less time,” she concludes. Obvious, yes, yet at the same time, profound.

An elderly man lies on a bed gazing upwards.
Drifter Dennis Dean misses the easy hookups and occasional gigs of his youth.

Bolen’s camera registers each of subjects in intimate close-ups—sometimes from difficult and awkward positions, even when (ostensibly) asleep! And Oppenheim, though a young filmmaker, knows each makes for a great documentary subject, whether by virtue of an especially expressive face, personality quirk, or keen perspective. Oppenheim is not out to make a traditionally expository or especially objective documentary charting the superficial normalcy or friendliness of The Villages’ residents; nor is he interested in an exposé of its politics or scandals. Rather, Oppenheim charts his unusual and evocative subjects’ difficulties adapting to their isolation in a community that only pretends to prioritize harmony and synchrony.

Sirk’s influence is especially strong here. The German-born director’s 1950s Hollywood melodramas employed elaborate mise-en-scene with their evocative use of color and symbol: a decorative divider became a locked gate, a snowflake a teardrop, a television screen a jail cell. Oppenheim and Bolen together work to create a visual system in Some Kind of Heaven that functions similarly using handrails, golf carts, windows, and other framing devices that separate their isolated protagonists from their communities. That they can do so within the confines of documentary, limited to what exists in their subjects’ world, is something of a marvel. Sirk could build a set; Oppenheim and Bolen can shoot only what they can see.

Sirk was also especially sensitive to the plight of women who found themselves, for one reason or another, isolated from others. If his films’ plots were riddled with bizarre non sequiturs and uncanny coincidences, Sirk treated women’s concerns with an intense empathy. In Some Kind of Heaven, Oppenheim takes Anne and Barbara especially seriously, examining their characters without irony or judgment. More broadly, the film’s character types—the lonely widow, the charismatic free spirit, a pair of vexed spouses—could have come right out of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Oppenheim has himself cited Sirk contemporary Nicholas Ray’s suburban melodrama Bigger than Life as one influence.

Like that film and like Sirk’s, Some Kind of Heaven employs the strategies of melodrama in the service of a tale centered on and empathetic to its aging female characters in particular. Just 24 and making his first feature-length documentary, Oppenheim offers an artful and surprising insight on aging for individuals finding themselves surprisingly isolated in a community of 120,000-plus inhabitants. His team—producer Aronofsky, editor Garber, cinematographer Bolen, and composer Ari Balouzian—bring to the project a wealth of experience to support the director’s unique vision.

As a young fan of The Wrestler and The Fountain, Oppenheim emailed Aronofsky repeatedly, even to the point of annoyance, before soliciting his help with Heaven. Bolen’s rich imagery lends the film an iconic, memorable style in windowboxed 1.33:1 aspect ratio that creates a claustrophobic feel to the frame. While some of the diegetic music—locals’ unironic performances of “Pink Cadillac”(!) and “Blurred Lines”(!!!)—creates its own meaning, composer Balouzian’s occasionally Brubeckian jazz and melancholy Mellotron-based mood pieces underscore the core cast’s isolation. One can sense how much fun the team has in rendering one of Reggie’s trips in a cacophony of discordant sounds and blurred images; even something as simple as Dennis’s fumbling with window blinds in an unfamiliar bedroom turns into a montage of physical comedy. On the tee, in the van, in the pool, in bed, in the car or cart—Oppenheim and Bolen stay close and intimate to their subjects.

A blurred image of an older man driving a golf cart at dusk.
Oppenheim, Bolen, and Balouzian render one of Reggie’s trips in a cacophony of atonal sounds and blurred images.

Some Kind of Heaven was met with scorn and derision from many Village residents trained to distrust anything other than far-right media as “fake news.” Just check out viewer reviews from defensive Villagers on Amazon or practically any other social site. But Oppenheim’s film offers a rich viewing experience for cinephiles familiar with social melodrama and participatory documentary. In other words, for those who might hope for a little arthouse in their documentary. Neither a simple celebration nor a journalistic exposé, Some Kind of Heaven offers something more complex, a handsomely cinematic and allegorical tale informed by Sirkian melodrama that suggests aging is more challenging than simply getting older. Facing, rather than fleeing from, the challenges aging brings, Opperheimer’s subjects may struggle, but they are beautifully and individually human.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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