THE VILLAGES — The documentary Some Kind of Heaven provides two life lessons: one on screen for the viewers and another behind the scenes for young filmmakers.
The movie about the imperfect life in the Villages retirement community premieres in theaters on Jan. 8 and at home through Video On Demand starting Jan. 15.
It is 24-year-old director and producer Lance Oppenheim’s feature documentary debut, but was co-produced by the New York Times and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky of Pi and The Wrestler fame.
“You have to make your own luck,” said Oppenheim, a native of Fort Lauderdale, about what his success can teach those looking to follow in his footsteps.
On screen, Oppenheim said, viewers will learn about “people who move to a place like the Villages to hide from the things in life that will eventually get to you. Things don’t necessarily go that way. The only way to really deal with them in a concrete way is to address them and get the help you need.”
The documentary begins by detailing the activities and luxuries available to those residing in the Villages.
Some describe it as utopia. But the 83-minute story pivots to another point of view on what is billed as the nation’s largest retirement community. The Villages spans Lake, Sumter and Marion counties and is home to 120,000.
No matter how perfect the layout, the Villages cannot provide shelter from life’s imperfections.
The film “invests in the dreams and desires of a small group of Villages residents,” reads a news release, “who are unable to find happiness within the community’s pre-packaged paradise.”
Those residents include Reggie Kincer, who turns to drugs in search of a spiritual breakthrough, and his wife, Anne, who questions whether they should remain married following her husband’s arrest for cocaine possession.
There is also Dennis Dean, described in the documentary as former handyman to the stars. He lives in his van while seeking a woman for financial security.
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“We actually lived in the Villages on and off for about 18 months of actual shooting” that wrapped in the summer of 2019, Oppenheim said of his filmmaking team. “And I spent a few more months there before shooting, living without a camera” to get access to the personal lives of residents.
How he got to that point is a story of persistence.
When other kids were trading baseball cards and comic books, Oppenheim said, “I was obsessed with documentaries, specifically the stuff the New York Times was doing.”
The newspaper’s website features Op-Docs, short documentaries made by independent filmmakers.
“I made it my mission to get in touch with them. I submitted all kinds of crappy short documentaries in high school and college,” said Oppenheim, a graduate of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale and Harvard University. He then added with a laugh, “Finally, I just wore them down.”
His first Op-Doc was Long Term Parking. It premiered online in 2016 and told of a Los Angeles International Airport parking lot used as a motor home park for pilots, flight attendants and plane mechanics.
In 2018, Oppenheim produced the Op-Doc Happiest Man in the World about a man living on the same cruise ship for two decades.
Some Kind of Heaven was supposed to be a short Op-Doc doubling as Oppenheim’s college thesis. But after spending 15 days in the Villages, he realized this story needed to be a feature documentary. The New York Times agreed.
“It was this organic kind of natural progression,” he said.
Oppenheim brought Aronofsky into the mix in the same way he did the New York Times.
“I badgered him,” he said.
Aronofsky has a fascination with aging. The Wrestler and The Fountain deal with the topic.
“Both those films were huge to me,” Oppenheim said. “I was obsessed.”
Oppenheim began sending emails to Aronofsky’s office while still in college.
“They mostly said how much I appreciated his work and would love advice,” he said. “I sent those for five years.”
Once the New York Times agreed to produce Some Kind of Heaven, Oppenheim sent Aronofsky a more substantive email that detailed the project.
“To my surprise, he wanted to get together,” Oppenheim said. “I was pinching myself.”
Aronofsky’s advice on notes on five edits of the movie, Oppenheim said, was critical to its success.
“The film he’s made is a timeless look at love and fulfillment in one’s later years,” Aronofsky said via a news release. “I believe it will resonate with people across all stages of life.”
The Villages, Oppenheim said, is known for being “skeptical of outside reporters and artists because that can generate negative attention.”
So how did he get access?
Again — he asked.
He asked to rent a couple’s Airbnb room in their house.
“I hung around with them and they introduced me to people and showed me around,” Oppenheim said. “I just started showing up to places, sometimes uninvited, and would introduce myself. And that was how it started.”
The documentary is not an indictment on the Villages, Oppenheim said. The unhappiness and uncertainty the subjects face occur everywhere. But the Villages is the perfect backdrop to prove that even the coziest of surroundings cannot stave off personal demons.
The film looks at how some seniors “exist in an environment where everyone is so constantly engaged in revelry and fun and optimism of the place, and yet they don’t fit in,” Oppenheim said.
For that reason, he said, his subjects should be heralded.
“It’s incredibly brave what they did,” he said, “by letting outsider young filmmakers come in and bear witness to the stuff they were going through.”
To watch ‘Some Kind of Heaven’
The following Tampa Bay area theaters will screen the movie beginning Jan. 8: CMX Cinebistro at Hyde Park in Tampa, Tyrone Luxury 10 in St. Petersburg, Countryside 12 in Clearwater, Xscape in Riverview, Lakeside Village 18 in Lakeland, Studio Movie Grill in Seminole and Touchstar Cinema Spring Hill 8 in Spring Hill.
For Video On Demand streaming options, visit somekindofheaven.com.