My grandparents live in a secluded neighborhood on the suburban outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska. Most people in Nelson’s Creek crack 40, but it’s by no means a retirement community. Manicured lawns, individualized by gnomes or the occasional leftover reindeer, frame beige, baby blue, or white 2-to-3-bedroom homes. The elementary school, usually closed for a holiday when I am in town, serves a small class of children. It has a basketball hoop that functions as a 5-way funnel, catching the shots of many participants at once in one trough, then relaying them back through several openings in the bottom. It’s an unfaithful reinterpretation of a hoop, but for nine-year-olds, it’s more cool than it is a hindrance to organizing a real game.
Growing up in New York City and San Francisco, Nelson’s Creek was my only reference point for suburban life. At risk of showing my coastal elite-ness more than I already have, I’ll say that there was a real mystique to American suburbia: capture the flag, neighbors you like, biking alone to middle school. I had missed out on what was, from my deeply misplaced self-made mythology of American youth, quintessential. I would tell my cousins that playing capture the flag with their neighbors was a highlight of my summer, dwarfing the trips to an urban park where my imagination was confined within a one-block radius.
This idealized, and exceptionally American, notion of summer (see: Midwestern suburban carelessness, frat-fueled Southern animal parties, early-twenties sexy professional failing upwards-isms) prevails, despite our constant interaction with the less romantic reality of it. Though jobs, internships, or an uninspired brand of boredom more frequently dominate the holiday, we still want to fulfill some TikTok reel of firecrackers, ice cream, and spontaneous flings.
Lance Oppenheim’s latest documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, interrogates the manufacturing of the suburban experience in The Villages, where the mystic and idyllic American summer ensues year-long. A 32-square-mile “master-planned, age-restricted community,” The Villages lie somewhere between retirement community, summer camp, and cult. Accommodating over 120,000 residents at a median age of 67—over 98% of whom are white—Sumter County, Florida, where The Villages is located, is a refuge for the droves of middle-income seniors seeking to spend retirement with ease: surrounded by peers, never far from a mingling event, golf course, or affirmation that they haven’t “lost it.”
The film opens behind the cropped and dyed haircut of the elderly—but nevertheless attentive, active, and disciplining—“drill captain.” She dons a megaphone, wrist cast, and crisp white polo reading “The Villages Precision Drill Team.” After she yells, “Turn to the center, now!” five golf carts, organized by their primary colors, flanking in the rough, proceed to the fairway. She guides them through a routine, commanding their synchronous restraint, the likes only matched by a young Esther Williams—coincidentally, a figure only participants of golf cart drill would have been around to remember. Set against the humid polder of the north-Floridian horizon, the meticulously arranged dreamland of buggies, condos, and bob cuts barely overshine the wrinkles, mud, and out-of-date furniture through which reality persists. There isn’t necessarily a tension in this. The magic of The Villages isn’t lost in its inability to deliver on perfectly executed golf-cart hockey-stops, but heightened by its inhabitants’ will to attempt, nevertheless.
Oppenheim spends little exposition time on The Villages, instead opting to profile four occupants of the community. Anne and Reggie struggle with maintaining their marriage as Reggie develops an interest in drug use and spirituality, Barbara looks for love in the singles-world of The Villages following the passing of her husband, and Dennis seeks a wealthy lover to move in with, sleeping in a van while on the run from drug charges in California. All four, troubled by the struggle for renewal in the last act of life, have bought into the farce that they’ve crossed the finish line. The Villages are supposedly “it.” Relaxing and playing pickleball are the only responsibilities of seniors looking not to independently rage against the light, but rather to give in with communal indulgence. Nothing perfect, nothing aspirational, just the humility to try in an almost infantilizing environment that suggests, “You’re not perfect anymore, so who cares if you fall short—try it out.”
Oppenheim’s thesis isn’t so cliché, as the American Dream never truly presents itself. He’s hardly concerned about The Villages’ failure to attain its manicured idealism as advertised; the imperfections only heighten the specificity of The Villages’ answer to age. By investigating the elderly, who have nothing to lose and only renewed optimism, he finds subjects brutally aware of the unfulfilled American Dream, and shockingly unconcerned about this fact. Limitation is set at the feet of every resident of The Villages. Canes, pain medication, watered down cocktails, and jazzercise are a constant reminder of ago. Nonetheless, they party, golf, swim, and love.
The character most revealing in his unfaltering pursuit of youth is Dennis. His skin is fried from years of what I imagined was spring-break-at-Cancun activity. After getting kicked off of the premises of The Villages for car camping without a residence, he’s captured in his van, calling through his rolodex for a place to stay. After a dozen rejections, he admits, “I said from the get-go that I wanted to live fast, love hard, and die poor, and I am right there now. I’m poor.” His admission of poverty—while it’s no defeat—acknowledges the consequences of his choices. The women—some willing to take him out, some willing to take him in—aren’t even enough. He comes face-to-face with the luxuries of a bed, dinners at Chili’s, and in the best case, a golf cart, yet he returns to the van. The viewer feels the same mix of pity, empathy, and disgust you might get from a mini-series on a ditzy millennial man trying to figure it out in New York. He’s a good guy trying to figure himself out, but at 82.
My instinctive feeling towards Dennis was, admittedly, worry. Is this really how we turn out? We just never figure it out? But his unflinching desire to keep the party going, however self-destructive, revealed something even I as a child couldn’t muster. Summers in Nelson’s Creek, or even idyllic summer camp, always seemed to disappoint. Reruns of Bug Juice and the spectre of a summer I “really made the most of” eventually lowered my expectations for what could be. I asked myself, “Whether or not the Wet Hot American Summer exists, if it hasn’t happened yet, why try?” I’d go on to get internships, watch surf videos on YouTube, and hang out with the same couple of friends—essentially, give up. Perhaps what I need is to rediscover the internal chase for what TikTok dubs “the main character.” After all, Dennis never stopped.
Last week, after finishing the press-junket for Some Kind of Heaven, Oppenheim shared a commemorative post on Instagram. The first slide showed a promotional poster: “Meet and Greet! ‘Tijuana Jones’ a.k.a. Dennis Dean, The Star In The Movie Some Kind of Heaven!” Below, bullet points include, “See photos of his lifestyle! Gone wild!” and “Get a photo of T.J. and his famous mancave van!” On the second slide, Dennis is shown in bootleg merchandise he made, which he’s selling to residents outside The Villages. The caption reads, “Dennis Dean’s new schemes.” He smiles with bootleg movie merch in his hands, hopefully to fund another year of margaritas.