The Bubble

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Bubble
"Blankenbyl doesn't labour her point but instead lets Joe Berger's camerawork do the talking."

With the almost permanent blue skies of Florida and its neat picket fence suburban vibe, it's no wonder retirement The Villages has proved a magnet for older Americans with money in their pockets. We quickly learn The Villages is anything but an adequate description of this enormous complex - already almost twice the size of Manhattan with further doubling plans and boasting 150,000 residents, who can make use of 54 golf clubs, 70 swimming pools and thousands of recreation clubs. As one puts it, retirement homes used to be "a place where you want to go and die... This place will add 10 years to your life".

With its slightly comical, almost omnipresent golf buggies, manicured lawns and The Villages' own radio station (an affiliate of Fox News) pumping out 24/7 from every lamppost in the community, there is an air of manufactured, Truman Show-style unreality about everything - but that, when you think about it, is a large part of its appeal. These retirees, after all, have lived that "other" life, the one with bad weather and work and family grind and now they have the opportunity to kick back and think about little else than whether to go to the gun range or belly dancing class secure in the knowledge they need never worry about where their next mimosa is coming from ever again.

It is all slightly absurd, especially when accompanied by Adam Lukas' offbeat score, which often draws on dance rhythms for its humour - but it's a natural by-product of the manufactured setting and Austrian documentarian Valerie Blankenbyl is not looking to do a hatchet job here. But though some may accuse her of pulling her punches, there's much to be revealed here without looking for a headline-grabbing scandal on bedhopping or the like. She approaches the community with a large amount of sensitivity, so that we get a real sense of what attracts the likes of Toni and Roger Akers or Jeanie and John Ferguson to the place in the first place. It may be, in many ways, isolated from what you might consider to be the greater Florida outside its gates but, from the inside, it offers just about anything anyone could wish, including a strong sense of neighbourliness and community - even if all those neighbours do just happen to be in their senior years and almost exclusively white and Republican.

From the outside, looking in, however, there are pros and cons. On the plus side, the proprietor of a store - which stocks the improbably combination of guns and jewellery - talks about the money that these, predominantly, northern 'snow birds' fly in with but the negative element is soon apparent. There's a sense of the 'locals' being pressured to sell their land to the developers and, if they refuse, becoming tiny islands of wildness between the walls of The Villages carefully curated township. Blankenbyl doesn't labour her point but instead lets Joe Berger's camerawork do the talking, the lush trees, often dripping in Spanish moss and featuring squirrels running about, in Florida's still wild spaces in sharp contrast to the carefully placed palm trees and border plants of The Villages, where a resident notes there aren't even any bugs. Then, there's the question of water resources which the place is pouring through or the way that the community is gated even though its still on public land that anyone can pass through, although they have to push a button to do it.

We don't have to have these brewing problems hammered home to be able to see them - but as an Orlando sentinel columnist points out, seeing things like this is not something that is easy to do for those who are living within this community, with its own positive stream of news courtesy of the radio station and its own newspaper. While all Blankenbyl's interviewees from the community are warm and welcoming to her - even rolling with her when she begins to gently raise some difficult questions - the developers themselves are less happy. She includes footage showing her crew being approached, despite having all the sheriff's permissions to be there and there's a sense of them wanting to make outsiders feel unwelcome courtesy of those gates, which after all, are only for show rather than prevention.

What is happening here, however, isn't just a question for those who live in The Villages. Who can blame them for feeling more at ease with people their own age, who don't make them feel scared or ashamed or too old to do what they want when they want? It's not their generally conservative opinions or love of Trump that are specifically the problem either - more their disconnect with politics and the outside world in general, as though on permanent vacation from the wider questions of society. Those questions, include, for all of us, how we can find a better balance that encourages us all generations to live together in better co-existence rather than split apart.

Reviewed on: 16 Apr 2021
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The Bubble packshot
A look at a retirement community in Florida and its impact on the wider locale.

Director: Valerie Blankenbyl

Writer: Valerie Blankenbyl

Year: 2021

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: Switzerland, Austria

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