Heaven Knows What (2015)

13 Sep

Heroin junkies have been made subjects of films before, but perhaps never so intimately and up close as in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s indie hit Heaven Knows What.  Based on the real life memoir of actress Arielle Holmes, the film documents several days in the lives of a group of addicts living on the streets of NYC with incredible realism, intimacy and honesty.

Holmes plays Harley, a homeless young girl who has fallen in love with fellow addict Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Ilya, set on getting high on his own, decides he wants nothing to do with Harley, and in a bizarrely startling opener, dares Harley to kill herself as proof of her love for him. It’s a jarring, uncomfortable way to open a film like this, but it acts as compelling evidence to Ben and Joshua Safdie’s commitment to highlight the ups and downs of addiction. The director’s fly-on-the-wall approach works effectively well throughout the rest of the film; the omnipresent camera floats between capturing Harley and Ilya’s toxic relationship to introducing us to other characters like Mike (Buddy Duress) and Skully (Ron Braunstein) who both provide and demand drugs from each other in equal measure.

It’s easy to assume that the Safdie brothers should be building a narrative out of exploitation, a sort of “shock-doc”  expose on one of NYC’s most notorious subcultures. Instead, they simply let their subjects do the talking, and – thanks to some incredibly raw and authentic performances – it works.  By sidestepping the unnecessary melodrama or stylization (any comparisons to similarly themed Enter The Void would be proven inaccurate), we get a subtle and honest look at the lives of these characters, specifically how substances have gradually replaced their interpersonal relationships. The editing is fast and cutthroat, and the rhythmic electronic score by Ariel Pink and Japanese composer Isao Tomita, adds a unique but never distracting layer of atmosphere.

Make no mistake, this is absolutely Arielle Holmes’ story; she absolutely owns every moment onscreen in what will no doubt be one of the year’s most memorable performances. But credit must also be given to the directors for creating such an immersive experience.

Bottom Line: Sincerity and authenticity from Heaven Knows What give the filmmakers a distinct and vibrant storytelling voice.

Rating : 7/10 

Film Recipe: Requiem For A Dream – style overload + cinema verite’ + actual junkies 


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