The sky is a deep shade of indigo. Underneath the towering palm trees is a man standing upright in an empty pool. He closes his eyes and moves his arms in repetitive outward and inward motions. He appears to be meditating. As if by some divine force, flashes of lightning illuminate the sky behind him.
The man in the pool is Reggie Kincer, one of 130,000 residents living in the Sumter County, Florida, retirement community called the Villages.
In this bewildering community, residents enjoy a cornucopia of activities like golf, rowing, and synchronized-swimming classes. There are restaurants, shops, and nightclubs to guarantee you never have to venture out into the real world again.
For 18 months, between 2018 and 2019, filmmaker Lance Oppenheim spent time in the community, gaining access to the intimacies of Florida’s friendliest hometown. His documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, offers a glimpse into the lives of four retirees living out their golden years at the Villages.
Oppenheim, who grew up in Weston, recalls hearing stories about the Villages when he was in middle school. Like many stories kids swap, they might not always be entirely factual, but the right story can pique your curiosity.
“I had heard a rumor that I later learned was not true, but I had heard about this retirement community that had one of the highest rates of STDs out of anywhere in the state,” Oppenheim tells New Times. “When I was younger, I was fascinated by [the Villages] because it seemed like it was the ultimate hedonistic playground for seniors to go to toward the end of their lives.”
The massive retirement community sits about an hour away from Orlando and is often referred to as "Disney World for retirees." Many of its buildings look like sets you’d find at a Hollywood theme park or along the Magic Kingdom's Main Street. In fact, old-timey façades in the Villages are done on purpose. As the documentary divulges, the entire community is based on “fake histories made up over a bottle of scotch.”
The 24-year-old filmmaker had previously directed three short documentaries that followed the lives of people who lived in unconventional spaces and places. The South Florida native was fascinated by how seemingly ordinary people lead unexpected lives. So when it came time to pick a topic for his Harvard senior thesis, he rediscovered the Villages.
“I was thinking about stories in Florida and what I could do if I went home for a summer. What could I film and explore?” Oppenheim says.
In the summer of 2018, Oppenheim headed for Central Florida with a camera, a notebook, and an Airbnb rental.
Before filming, he spent time at the community, getting to know some of its inhabitants. Picture a tall, skinny, twentysomething with thick-rimmed glasses going to parties and playing pickleball with white-haired retirees in their 70s and 80s.
Oppenheim wanted the full Villages experience, so he’d manage ways to get invited places.
“I would show up to everything,” he says.
He ultimately learned the lay of the land and got to know the local characters.
“It felt as if every person I was surrounding myself with was desperately trying to have as much fun as possible,” Oppenheim says. “Every minute of the day, if they weren’t having fun, something was wrong.”
Naturally, he started to seek out those who weren’t having the time of their lives. He set out to answer the question, “What happens when a fantasyland becomes a nightmare?”
The documentary mainly follows four individuals: Reggie, the lightning-summoning tai chi master, and his wife Anne; Barbara Lochiatto, a recent widow who lives alone; and a drifter named Dennis Dean, living out of his van and looking to score a wealthy wife.
“It was very fun working with all of them,” Oppenheim says. “It was a lot more of a collaborative experience than any other film I had made.”
Having previously worked with the New York Times on three short documentaries for the newspaper’s Op-Doc series, Oppenheim applied for a grant to make Some Kind of Heaven a reality. Initially, the filmmaker says, he intended to produce a short documentary, but as he spent more and more time at the Villages, the idea grew into a full-length feature. Eventually, acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky signed on as a producer, and the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, where it was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures.
At the end of the nearly two-and-a-half-year journey of making Some Kind of Heaven, Oppenheim developed a newfound sense of compassion.
“I totally understand why someone at that age would want to be in a place that reminds them of their youth,” the young filmmaker explains.
“In my mind, these aren’t old people. They’re just people who are going through very real problems in a very unreal, hyper-real place.”
Some Kind of Heaven. Opens in select theaters in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach on Friday, January 8; available via on demand beginning Friday, January 15.
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