HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT * * * *
Starring Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Necro and Elenore Hendricks. Screenplay by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie.
Because of what I do, a lot of acquaintances ask me for movie recommendations, but folks’ eyes tend to glaze over whenever I suggest something like Heaven Knows What. Totally understandable, as “homeless junkies on the streets of New York City” isn’t as sexy a sell as “dinosaurs get loose in a theme park again” or “superhero X does whatever.” Besides, once you’ve sprung for dinner, a babysitter and parking, do you really want to spend a rare night out contemplating extreme poverty and the ravages of addiction? I get it.
Writing about this remarkable film at Salon, critic Andrew O’Hehir rather depressingly concedes: “most people I know wouldn’t want to watch this movie, and the ones who would like it are exactly the ones who have already seen it.”
So then what are we even doing here? Well, I happen to think Heaven Knows What is a great film and I want to tell you about it. (And this is my website so I can do whatever I want. Nyah.) For ninety-six minutes this movie took me into another world, maybe one I didn’t necessarily ever want to visit – but a world that is nonetheless very real and is something we all do our best to ignore when making our way around any major city every day. It’s about the people we step over and try to tune out.
Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie discovered Arielle Holmes while they were working on an unrelated project in New York’s Diamond District. Floored by her tales of life on the street, they convinced Holmes to put pen to paper, for what eventually blossomed into the soon-to-be-published memoir Mad Love In New York City.
Meanwhile, the Safdies and screenwriter Ronald Bronstein adapted her writings into the lightly fictionalized Heaven Knows What. With one notable exception the cast was comprised of their real-life counterparts, and the movie was shot, presumably guerilla-style, in Upper West Side neighborhoods that might look familiar to fans of Panic In Needle Park. (The more things change…)
This is mostly what happened, played out by the people who were there, which I guess is why Heaven Knows What feels about as close as you can get to a documentary while still having the shape and stylistic contours of a dramatic feature.
Holmes stars as Harley, a mouthy, heroin-addicted street-waif madly in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, the lone pro actor in the bunch) despite –or maybe because of– the fact that he’s the most horrible boyfriend in the world. The film kicks off with Ilya goading Harley into a grisly suicide attempt outside the public library where these homeless young twentysomethings all gather to update their Facebook pages. This lands her a stint in Bellevue during the opening credits; Harley’s stay compressed into a single chaotic, claustrophobic long-take, the sound drowned out by Isao Tomita’s hypnotic synth score.
The rest of the film follows Harley after her release, taking up for a spell with Mike — a kinder, gentler dope dealer played by Buddy Duress with the harried chivalry of a junkie Elliott Gould. He’s got a thing for Harley but she’s still hung up on awful Ilya. And that’s about all we’ve got for plot, as perhaps the most incredible thing about Heaven Knows What is the way it immerses us into these addicts’ day-to-day hustle, living from hand to mouth and fix to fix. The film seems to take place entirely in the present tense, as these kids have long since stopped considering a future and probably can’t bear to think about the past.
Shot by the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams in perspective-smushing telephoto close-ups, the movie doesn’t feature anybody from “the straight world” and there aren’t any redemptive character arcs or tragic backstories to explain away the behavior. We simply live with these people for a little while, crashing at flophouses or shelters, hanging out for hours on end in crappy fast food restaurants and “spanging” – their preferred slang term for collecting spare change outside of area businesses. The small-time scams are full of short-term ingenuity, like swiping a bag of mail looking for gift cards or shoplifting 5 Hour Energy capsules from Duane Reades and selling them to corner newsstands, everything leading only to the next high.
The verisimilitude is extraordinary; grimy with authenticity. The filmmakers don’t judge their characters, nor do they do any special pleading on their behalf. They simply plunge us into Arielle Holmes’ world and allow us to experience it for ourselves. In his Salon piece O’Hehir argues that “consciously and deliberately, the Safdies have made a film with essentially no audience among middle-class, consumer-type Americans, among avid viewers of Game Of Thrones or Girls or Louie.” And while the dismal box-office numbers appear to have borne him out, I still don’t really want to believe that.
Roger Ebert famously said that movies are machines that generate empathy, and that at their best they can “help us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Heaven Knows What may not be a pleasant viewing experience, but it is an enormously compelling one, and with exceptional artistry it forced me to look at and consider people from whom on the street I too often look away.
This is valuable. It’s something more movies should do.