Money can’t buy happiness, but it can still buy a hell of a joyride. America’s largest retirement community, The Villages, bills itself as “America’s premier Active Adult Retirement Community located in sunny central Florida,” and if you have the means to do so, it’s where you can ride out the golden years in style. This is a planned community that is entirely a capitalist creation, with all the thrill of a theme park and a dash of derangement. But residents gleefully buy into the illusion of a fantasy world, shelling out their retirement funds to sip from the fountain of youth, or at least sip a few margaritas.
The Villages is such a fascinating subject matter that any documentary about this bizarre little census-designated place is bound to be interesting. Yet director Lance Oppenheim does not just let the weirdness speak for itself. Each frame feels purposeful, meant to magnify the oddities of the place and its inhabitants. Or maybe his camera lens acts more like a kaleidoscope, showing us the endless patterns in cookie-cutter houses, synchronized swimming classes, and rowing crews. The symmetrical framing showcases the careful attention to detail of the planned community, and its astonishing level of visual harmony: the cinematography is breathtaking in its shots of color-streaked sunsets, perfectly manicured lawns, and cookie-cutter developments. Everything is positive, upbeat, and candy-colored, and the residents have everything they could ever want. It’s the retired American Dream: every day is bright and good, every yard is perfectly landscaped, and every resident can have a golf cart.
Yet all of this comes at a price; the cost of living (or, maybe more aptly, the cost of not dying) is extremely high. As residents describe it, The Villages is a great place to stave off the creep of death and enjoy retirement to its fullest, but being there is like being in a bubble or a dream-world, not totally in reality. Residents have their blinders on when it comes to the real world: “I don’t see slums. I don’t see death and destruction,” one resident says, almost proudly. Indeed, living in The Villages is living in a state of willful ignorance, choosing to buy into the false facade of happiness that its shiny exteriors promise. The tessellating visuals reveal some beauty in the community’s patterns of daily life, but also expose a bleaker truth: all of the residents repeat the same activities ad infinitum until their eventual death, when they are quickly replaced with new residents to occupy their roles.
This may be Oppenheim’s debut feature, but he shows an impressive level of empathy toward his subjects on the other end of their life timelines. Despite the old age, there is a youthful energy pervading the film; one resident compares The Villages to college, where you can suddenly be whoever you want and search for companionship in a sea of singles. Yet Oppenheim is quick to intrude upon that dream-world in his depiction of The Villages as a partying paradise. The place may be loaded with artificial sweetener, but it’s clearly no Candyland, at least not for everyone.
He grounds his storytelling with a focus on a few key characters. We meet Anne and Reggie, a couple who confront Reggie’s spiralling behavior as he turns to substances, and there are also lost and lonely souls like Barbara and Dennis, each searching for someone. Barbara wants someone to love, while Dennis wants someone to provide for him financially; even in this shiny capitalist utopia, each of them fail to find what they’re looking for and have their emotional or monetary needs met. The mass-produced marketing fantasy might satisfy most, but coordinated events and poolside drinks are not enough to sustain everyone. As the residents give voice-overs or interviews in their dark bedrooms, Oppenheim shows us clandestine encounters that get at a darkness beneath the wholesomeness.
Despite the crisp and saturated cinematography, the film can often have the feel of a lost home movie. The Villages was created to evoke a sense of nostalgia, even if it is a bit of weird Americana that does not feel quite ready for the light of day. Just as you think that things could not get any weirder, they do. There are inexplicably surreal moments, like when a group of women introduce themselves one after another with the same name — “Hi, my name is Elaine… Elaine is our name,” they intone in a haunting sing-song — or when a group of cheerleaders or a man in bat wings suddenly appear and perform for the camera. Later, a man leading an acting class screams “WHO AM I” and asks the residents what they are here for; the answer is for them to try to “live another life.” Whether that means living life to its fullest or becoming someone new, existing in The Villages is an extended exercise in performance, the residents staging a show for perhaps no other reason than to entertain themselves in their later years.
There is plenty of dark humor, some moments more intentionally hilarious than others: end-of-life planning is discussed glibly, and radios echo in the background with advertisements for activities or pharmaceuticals. But while Oppenheim creates impeccably composed frames that make a spectacle out of senior-citizen hedonism, he never treats the residents and their escapades as punchlines, instead listening to their stories with respect.
The pacing can slow as the narrative gets more fractured and pulls in different directions, following the residents in their endless activities, legal battles, singles events, personal struggles, and searches for something or someone to keep them occupied. Oppenheim chooses to focus more on the personal histories of the residents, rather than scrutinizing the upper-middle-class whiteness of this so-called paradise from a sociological lens. The film leaves us curious about the lack of diversity in The Villages, and what life is like there for anyone who is not white. In addition, we cannot help but wonder who all the staff members are, and about the immense labor they must put in behind-the-scenes to keep The Villages pristine and perfect-seeming. Even in this community that is essentially a marketing fantasy, there are still people left out of this capitalist vision of utopia: residents struggling to make ends meet and keep themselves afloat while others gleefully ride the wave of retired freedom. When you peel back the plastic on this pre-packaged paradise, there is more plastic underneath.
The subject matter needs no exalting to capture our attention, but Oppenheim splendidly captures the strange and special quality of this community that allows it to sell itself to residents even if they are ever-aware of its artificiality. The Villages attempts to sell a one-size-fits-all vision of paradise, and while it may not be utopian for all, it allows residents to fend off the pearly gates of actual heaven for the gated community of knock-off heaven on earth.