New Film "Some Kind of Heaven" Wrestles with Aging in America
Since its release in early 2021, Lance Oppenheim’s debut film Some Kind of Heaven has been sparking conversations about aging in America—inviting audiences both young and old to consider what it means to live out one’s final decades in a healthy and meaningful way.
The documentary doesn’t aim to give its audience a view of the average aging experience. Just the opposite—it takes us to The Villages, a retirement community in Florida known for its rowdiness. Home to almost 130,000, and limited to those over age 55, the Villages aspires to be an aging utopia—at least for a very particular (upper-middle class and white) demographic.
Many of the most universal challenges of aging, such as navigating Social Security, getting access to good healthcare, making ends meet without full-time work, and feeling out of touch are more-or-less absent from these retirees' lives. For those who choose to move there, that’s the whole point. The place makes it all too easy: the local radio station only plays oldies, and the local newspaper only prints good news.
Oppenheim’s portrayal is uncanny; it showcases the community’s appeal—a nostalgic Main Street, oodles of activities ranging from belly-dancing to a golf cart drill team to clubbing for singles—even as it unveils undertones of existential queasiness, loneliness, and surreality that some residents experience.
Growing up in Florida, Oppenheim had heard about The Villages long before he visited and was inspired to make a movie about it.
“It started from a place of this initial curiosity about the Villages that I had, as kind of a Mecca for retirees,” he explains. “The phenomenon I was interested in was this Peter Pan syndrome—the place manages to bring seniors back to the time of their youth by creating this artificial fantasy world, kind of like The Truman Show in real life, that really draws people here. That was something I really wanted to go and observe and understand.”
While a student at Harvard, his curiosity evolved into the beginnings of the film. But as he and his camera crew spent time in the community and the project began to take shape, they felt inclined to tell a story that captured something other than the most typical Villager experience.
“As I looked around, I saw that as many people that were fitting in and finding meaning and fulfillment in joining different clubs that reminded them of being young, there were also a lot of people that felt the pressure and the stress of needing to have a good time every second of the day because at the back of their minds was a ticking clock,” he says. “And a lot of the distractions and the attempts at kind of transcending aging were futile, in a way, and that was really interesting to me.”
While from the outside, the place might have seemed utopic, Oppenheim wanted to dig deeper.
“Something else that I was trying to poke a hole in was this idea of graceful aging—that when you get to a certain age all the problems of your life are in the rearview mirror,” he continues. “When you look at stock photos of those who are older it’s usually two people smiling in a pool and I just would see these photos all around the Villages and I knew that there was a myth that these images were perpetuating—not that aging is a horrible thing, I think for those that do get to age it’s a real gift, but I think in a place like the Villages that attempts to erase negative things and the more painful parts of aging, I was interested in seeing the ways those manifested again in the lives of people that couldn’t find happiness in all the usual ways that other people were.”
The film follows three characters—a woman trying to get back into dating after her husband’s death, a man experimenting with psychedelics within a strained marriage, and a man struggling financially and living in a van while on the hunt for a wealthy girlfriend who will front his bills.
Finding new love and sustaining the old are themes in all three characters’ lives, and it’s clear to viewers that these challenges are timeless; even, or perhaps especially, in a world designed to minimize worries, the dramas of human connection play out just as unpredictably.
According to Oppenheim, he’s received some pushback from The Villages since the film’s release. They feel it’s not an accurate portrayal of the community, which Oppenheim readily concedes; it was his intention from the start to study the place along its fringe. Ultimately, his message is important: even as American culture continues to isolate its seniors, he urges us to look at the last years of life not as a phase that stands apart from all the complexities of adulthood, but one that entails many of the same timeless human trials.
Produced by legendary director Darren Aronofsky and The New York Times, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2020. It was released on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes a year later, and it will become available on Hulu on May 13th, 2021.
Check out the film and share your thoughts in the comments below.