Greetings again from the darkness. The Villages of Florida is a massive master-planned retirement community. It’s similar in development to Del Webb’s Sun City, but roughly 5 times the size. We learn that there are 20,000 single folks among the residents of The Villages, and it’s described as “Disneyland for retirees”. Director Lance Oppenheim (his first feature length documentary) peaks behind the façade of paradise.
“You come here to live. You don’t come here to die.” One of the residents makes that statement, and there is much to back it up. Golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, recreation centers, social activities, concerts, churches, shopping, and it seems there’s always a party to be found. However, rather than explore the seniors who are embracing this pre-fab lifestyle, director Oppenheim focuses on four individuals whose situations wouldn’t be considered success stories.
Anne and Reggie are about to celebrate 47 years of marriage. But is there reason to celebrate? While Anne fine-tunes her pickleball skills, Reggie self-treats his declining mental acuity with drugs and solitary spirituality. Dennis is the party boy. He’s an 81 year old ‘teenager’ living in his van down by The Villages as he searches for a companion with money – one who will open her villa and treat him like the king he views himself as. Barbara is homesick for Boston. She moved to The Villages with her husband, and he died not long after their arrival. Out of money, she’s working full time in the community office – carrying a sullen look that implies depression and loneliness.
Anne looks to a counselor for help, while Reggie fights drug charges by representing himself in a court of law to a judge who doesn’t appreciate rudeness. Dennis is a self-described “handyman” who can’t work venetian blinds, and is smarmy in his pickup methods. Barbara watches video of her wedding on her iPad while eating lunch with her dog, and only shows signs of life when the Parrot Head Margarita man is kind enough to converse with her. While we are getting to know these four, Oppenheim shows off the fabulous community with a golf cart bridge over the freeway, its manicured lawns, swaying palm trees, and engaged citizenry.
The Villages were originally developed by Harold Schwartz, and he makes a brief appearance here thanks to an old video clip. With more than 100,000 residents, is it the sterile environment that masks sadness as presented by Oppenheim, or does it provide an environment for folks to live out their final years by staying active, learning new activities, and socializing? By choosing these four as his focus, there is little doubt the filmmaker is making a statement about his stance, but a better approach would have included insight from “the other side” of the argument. Otherwise, why are there so many “Frogs” – those there till the croak?
Available January 15, 2021 on Video on Demand