Film Review: Heaven Knows What

The Safdies take on the streets of New York City with the true story of a group of junkies, with the main focus on Harley, a young woman addicted to both heroin and her boyfriend Ilya. Powerful and poetic, with a lush sense of realism.
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Heaven Knows What is a tantalizing film that deals with addiction. Yet the addiction depicted in the raw and gritty world of the film isn’t just for the heroin the subjects of the story routinely pursue. It’s also for love, life and existence in the purest possible form. Filmmaking siblings Joshua and Ben Safdie share directing credit for Heaven Knows What, and reach for the lived-in, attentive and unfeigned realism that brought us their terrific and touching Daddy Longlegs. Their distinctly original new film explores the idea of the unattainable—whether it’s long-lasting love or the momentary pleasure that drug use brings. And in doing that, the Safdie brothers find poetry in the tormented world of some deeply wounded vagabonds.

The film keeps most of its focus on one of them: Harley (played by Arielle Holmes), who treats “love” and “drugs” as one and the same. Heaven Knows What is a film that is inseparable from its backstory, so it is crucial to note that Harley’s experiences come from the autobiographical memoir Holmes wrote after meeting Josh Safdie, or, rather, after Safdie discovered her and her real-life stories about living day-to-day as a junkie on the streets of New York City. It is perhaps no surprise that the effortless authenticity of Holmes–a first-time actress—dominates the screen (alongside other cast members who also play themselves or slight variations) and moves back and forth between docudrama and fiction with ease.

Our first introduction to Harley is in the film’s opening moments, before the Safdies even let the title appear onscreen: She is in a passionate fight with the man she hopelessly (and self-destructively) loves: Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). When he dares her to prove her love to him by slitting her wrists, she hesitates only for a brief moment and then lets the blood pour out of her veins.

With this blood-spattered introduction, the Safdies hint that we aren’t necessarily about to see a cautionary tale about the harm of drug use, á la Darren Aronofksy’s Requiem for a Dream (despite the grimness of Harley’s action) or an absurdist film on addiction that will grant comedic relief to its audience, á la Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Instead, Heaven Knows What observantly and non-judgmentally stands by the side of Harley no matter how harmful her various fixations will become. Harley, along with her clan of junkies, negotiates her way through the impossibility of life in New York City, using her persuasive (though often scathing) tongue to get her fix and relentlessly seeking opportunities to make a few bucks here and there. In this world, every day is a challenge and no crime, not even shoplifting a bunch of energy drinks so they can be resold for hard cash, is out of bounds.

In Heaven Knows What, many areas of New York City, known as “good neighborhoods” to the locals, become instantly unrecognizable. In accordance with the film’s icily true-to-life reality, the city appears to be frozen inside and out, and I am not just referring to the snow on the ground. Sean Price Williams’ chilling-to-the-touch lens creates a frosty layer over the city, as he patiently observes the characters without blatant intrusions. The soundtrack fittingly underlines the turmoil with original electronic tunes, and levels it with the melancholic romance of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” As Harley roams from place to place and deals with one challenge after another, she unknowingly approaches a major crisis waiting for her around the corner. But Heaven Knows What, even with its occasional distancing point of view, somehow doesn’t drown in depression, but conveys a trace of hope through its lyricism.

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