Sundance 2020 Review: Lance Oppenheim’s “Some Kind of Heaven” is One Glorious Trip

”Some Kind of Heaven” opens with one of the most aspirationally American of sounds, the forceful spittle of a water spigot and while the screen remains black, you can picture a well-manicured lawn, likely belonging to a family from the 1950s with 2.5 kids and the expectation of growth like their beautiful grass. Of course, director Lance Oppenheim reveals the land as being bigger than that, as everything seems to be at the Villages, the senior citizen community in Florida where he sets up shop to observe those looking for the suburban dream that was promised to them at a younger age or at least a return to a more promising time in their lives, and as is so often the case in his wonderful feature debut, there is a surreal surprise awaiting when a series of golf carts is introduced, taking turns in unison – or not quite – as the Precision Drill Team, practicing a routine to entertain themselves and others at a time in their lives when the years go by rapidly, but the days do not.

“It’s a bit like heading off to university,” Anne, one of the denizens can be heard saying of the Villages, as if she’s returned to the literal era she went to college in order to find her way post-retirement. “You can be anybody you want to be.”

There’s plenty of options for the residents who can partake in synchronized swimming or belly dancing – Anne enjoys pickle ball personally, but her husband Reggie sits off to the side, wondering why he doesn’t have someone to “play around with,” despite his wife’s athleticism and as the film wears on, you realize that while the opportunities are wide open to live life untethered in a community whose founder billed it as “Disney World for retirees,” it is the people themselves that have a way of walling each other from one another as the filmmaker hones in on four subjects who have come to the Villages for a respite from the larger world.

“Retiree” is actually a slight misnomer when two of the subjects still have to work – Barbara is financially unable to quit her job taking calls for the community’s rehab and nursing center and recently suffered a loss of her own with the death of her husband, and Dennis can be seen always at work, though his goal is never to be employed, instead constantly on the prowl for rich – and ideally beautiful – women who could take him in and prevent him from sleeping another night in his van. Between them and Anne and Reggie, the married couple of 47 years, the film finds activities all around, but people stuck in one place, with the myriad of possibilities becoming stifling in either being pushed to their extremes, particularly by Reggie, who has picked up a casual drug habit, or too overwhelming to choose from, as Barbara settles on an acting class as a way of breaking out of her shell.

The insular, pre-fab world of the Villages is reflected in the film’s impeccable craft and its unforgiving framing, shot in boxy Academy aspect ratio and absolutely loaded with gorgeously composed shots of people finding the limits of reclaiming their favorite moments from the past or attempts at reinvention. As potentially grim as this subject matter could be when inevitable disappointment sets in amongst the residents who can’t only get so far away from who they were, “Some Kind of Heaven” never lets up from its rousing introduction, featuring a spry and playful score from Ari Balouzian and a wicked sense of humor emerging from its subjects and its sharply paced editing. When so often such stories of the elderly are cut for time, Oppenheim’s debut is particularly refreshing and although it’s debatable the stars of the film are better off opening themselves up to new experiences, this work of an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker leaves no question for the audience.

“Some Kind of Heaven” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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