I knew nothing about Lance Oppenheim's 'Some Kind of Heaven' going into this bizarre and wonderful documentary, and it's a good thing that I didn't. Not because it's full of twists or spoilers, but because nothing can quite prepare an audience for what they will see. At the end of the feature, and having gone through what some might call the effects of a hallucinogenic, the end title card appears to show that none other than Darren Aronofsky, of 'Mother' and 'Requiem for a Dream' fame, produced this film - then it all starts to make sense.
At just 24 years of age, Oppenheim has crafted a directorial debut that channels the fantasy language of a Lynchian dystopia. But whether the characters and setting that Oppenheim focuses on are living in a utopia or said dystopian landscape, is almost up to the audience to decide. What is clear, however, is that through an uneasy and purposeful phantasmagoric lens, 'Some Kind of Heaven' showcases a retirement village like no other. What's more, audiences are invited into their world to see that, even in retirement, there are stories to tell.
Americans have a fascination with creating for themselves their own bubbles to reside in, where they can live by their own construct and with like-minded people. One such place is The Villages in Florida, which is home to around 130,000 retirees. Designed to look like the America of yesteryear to mimic their youth, this perfectly manicured suburbia is home to some very colourful characters - most notably the four main subjects Oppenheim chooses to follow for his documentary.
Anne and Reggie have been married for 47 years, but their lives together seem to be drifting apart - probably because Reggie has decided he's now a free spirit, and spends his time with drugs and meditation while he awaits death. Anne is a loyal citizen to The Village, but her limits will be tested as her spouse slowly descends into chaos, evolving into a desolate and yearning resident.
On the other end of the scale is Dennis, a Peter Pan-like character who never grew up from his days as a 20-year-old. Dennis is a single man and a hustler, on the run from his home state and living as a nomad in his car, moving from place to place within The Village to avoid detection. You see, Dennis is not an official resident, so uses his charisma and manipulation to try and crawl his way into a relationship - and, more importantly, a roof over his head.
Then there's Barbara. Sweet, lonely Barbara, who has the difficult job of being the only beacon of hope and sympathy in this whirlwind of a place. Barbara is a widower from Boston who only moved to The Village because her husband fell for the fantasy that was sold to him. Unfortunately, he passed away soon after, leaving Barbara to fend for herself in a place she has never been comfortable in, and trying to discover what it means to live again without her spouse. Mark my words, you will fall for the sheer delight that is Barbara.
All these characters, in their own quirky and unique way, are all ultimately after the same thing: fulfilment. Even in retirement, they all seek love, companionship, meaning and purpose.
At just 24 years of age, Oppenheim has crafted a directorial debut that channels the fantasy language of a Lynchian dystopia.
The film opens with some of the residents excitingly proclaiming that "everything is here", "you never have to leave", and that we now as an audience will get a peek into "nirvana". Part interview, part fly-on-the-wall, and a whole lot of madness, 'Some Kind of Heaven' somehow feels like a documentary that was staged to look like a documentary. With slow zooms into close-ups and aspect ratios akin to modern-day horrors, you would be forgiven for thinking that everybody on screen might be a murderer. There is something almost sinister and unnerving in the way Oppenheim shoots his subjects, but it's so captivating and raw that it's impossible not to get carried away. The figures on screen are so often isolated, and when they are part of something bigger, you can't help but feel you might be watching 'Twin Peaks' or 'Blue Velvet'.
However bizarre the environment and landscape of The Village is projected, it's ultimately the characters that hold the structure of this film together. The pursuit of their desires can be uncomfortable and even sad at times, but they present such a vulnerable nature that you're fascinated by their journeys and hope for their survival. Surviving in this instance might be literal, but it's also their overcoming of fears, their acceptance of a new stage of life, or their newfound awakenings.
I cannot wait to see what Oppenheim decides to do next. Whether it be another documentary or even a short, he has an eye for visual storytelling, and he's clearly skilled at finding the right stories to tell. It can't have been easy to narrow his focus to four residents out of 130,000 at The Village, but Oppenheim showcases the capabilities and trust in his own expertise, that he was able to pull it off.
And pull it off he does. I have not seen a documentary like it, and I doubt I ever will again. For that alone, 'Some Kind of Heaven' should be seen. And for the sheer audaciousness of the subject and the characters at play, 'Some Kind of Heaven' deserves to be noted.