What at first seems a bright and cheesy opportunity to poke fun at the ignorance and excess of wealthy, white America becomes an insightful and somewhat bleak exploration of ageing.
The Villages is exactly the kind of retirement village you’d expect Walt Disney to design. Based in Florida, with eternal sunshine and palm trees, what was once a place for a few hundred people has become a township of 130,000. Planned specifically to create a nostalgia for times gone past, right down to a made up history and faux ageing of buildings, The Villages is only for retirees. It boasts that there is no need to leave it as it has everything you need, that it’s not a gated community, just a community with gates.
The main mode of transport is golf carts, there are dances and nightclubs every night with live music, there are singles clubs and ‘pickleball’ (tennis played with plastic balls and ping pong bats) and the streets are clean and free of anyone who doesn’t look like you (there was only one scene where I spotted some people of colour, in the background of a supermarket aisle). It seems there are plenty of people happy with this arrangement but Lance Oppenheim’s brightly coloured and beautifully constructed documentary focuses on a handful of people who aren’t completely loving it.
It’s hard not to feel compassion for them, although Dennis (who is something of a predatory menace) tested my patience. He is on the lookout for a good-looking woman to take care of him. Living in his van, he has tried the bars and nightclubs and the churches before discovering that the swimming pools are the best bet for meeting women. He is 81 but looks younger and you can see that he thinks he’s all that. His bravado of living hard and dying poor seems to be working out in a way he didn’t really expect.
Barbara has lived at The Villages for 12 years but, recently widowed, she realises she can’t afford to move back to where her family lives and must make the best of it. That means finding a man but it’s not so easy, no matter how many single-women tambourine parties she attends. She is surrounded by smiling, friendly people but seems to have no friends.
The stars of the show are couple Reggie and Anne. At first you can’t understand why Anne never smiles until you find out what she has to put up with Reggie. It might be drugs, it might be dementia, it’s probably narcissism, and you can see her biting her tongue as his actions become more and more problematic.
All of these people seem trapped in a world that promises to make all their dreams come true but allows for little individuality. It is for the wealthy and for people like Dennis who are living close to poverty, it’s a daily struggle to stay ahead of the neighbourhood busybodies. Like much of America, there is not much leeway between prosperity and poverty. For women like Barbara, life as a single woman is hard, something I am sure Anne ponders as she reflects on her marriage vows after 47 years of marriage to Reggie.
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