Tribeca 2022 Review: A Safe Haven Can’t Escape the Issues of Society at Large in “Naked Gardens”

In spite of all the clothes shed in “Naked Gardens,” it takes some time for Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan to reveal what they’re really up to as they embed at a nudist colony in Florida where eden looks a lot like a trailer park. Although one suspects Sunsport Gardens Naturist Resort has seen better days, Bresnan and Lucas have never been ones to look back as verite filmmakers of the first order, spending time with a variety of residents of different ages, it becomes apparent those who have found their way there likely have, living life on the edge in a far different way that you’d imagine – uninhibited perhaps but only because they feel there’s nothing left to lose.

Structured to get beyond immediate appearances, “Naked Gardens” eases audiences in as if they were to enjoy a carefree visit to Sunsport before exposing the mechanics that facilitate their stay. Morey, the proprietor and one of the few to ever be identified by name in the film, busies himself with various upkeep as guests go about leisure activities from fishing to basketball, but any notion that what’s happening is entirely carefree disappears to listen to what people are really saying in conversation as some refer to their lives outside the retreat where they’ve escaped abusive domestic partners, vicious relatives and floating above the poverty line. Some senior members of the Sunsport communal council have taken notice at least as it pertains to the spirit of the place when the population increasingly has ebbed towards older and male, but those who have joined more recently are more conspicuously clothed more often, bucking the suggestion on the front door of Morey’s office that “Nudity is expected,” but not mandatory and giving credence to critics who think it’s the low rent that’s bringing people in more than enthusiasm about naturalism.

When usually seen as outsiders to American culture, the nudists in “Naked Gardens” start to look like a pretty fair representation of a country falling apart as some in the community insist on holding onto certain tenets rather than bend them to be more inviting, others desperate for a place to live are forced to compromise their values and there’s largely indifferent leadership primarily concerned with keeping the status quo, most prominently in the form of an annual event that brings in nudists from around the country for hymns, meditation and a pudding fight.

It would be engaging enough to simply observe how Sunsport functions as Morey and his assistant calm the nerves of residents like any harried building manager and go about plans for the big summer blowout, taking great pains to craft a maze around a tree that’s the centerpiece for the festivities. However, what goes on inside Sunsport starts to reflects what happens outside of it without ever going beyond its gates and “Naked Gardens” taps into anxiety over exposing oneself emotionally in a culture where that isn’t the norm and when Lucas and Bresnan’s traditionally unhurried style allows for epiphanies to happen in their own time, it also has the generous effect in their latest of not imposing any rush to judgment in the space that they’ve created for their subjects.

“Naked Gardens” does not yet have U.S. distribution.