The new film from directors Josh and Benny Safdie takes an unflinchingly raw look at the heroin subculture of New York City. The guide through this dark rabbit hole is Harley (Arielle Holmes), a homeless young woman who spends her days seeking a quick fix, begging for money, and talking her way into places to squat when night falls. What makes Heaven Knows What standout from other drug fables is the fact that Harley is also addicted to something even more dangerous than heroin…romanticism.
She is a hopeless romantic who is the walking definition of looking for love in all the wrong places. The object of affection by several of her male friends on the street, including fellow homeless wannabe drug dealer Mike (Buddy Duress), Harley is drawn to power. This partly explains her infatuation with Ilya (Antiviral’s Caleb Landry Jones) the emotionally abusive love of her life. Willing to slit her wrists to prove her love for him, which Ilya taunts her into doing by saying “If you loved me you would have killed yourself by now”, it is Harley moments with her beloved that are the most haunting.
The Safdie brothers echo this sentiment in the way they bookend the film with scenes of the couple euphorically in a passionate embrace. This little slice of heaven is essentially all Harley has to cling to. The rest of their encounters are hellish in comparison.
Heaven Knows What does not shy away from its relentless, and at times bleak, honesty. There is a chilling authenticity to the proceedings that is both poignant and hypnotic. The Safdie brothers turn the viewers into addicts hooked on the vibrant performances and synthesized score on display. The film sinks into our veins and refuses to let go. The directors achieve this by playing with conventions and frequently opting to let the images speak for themselves. An early example of this comes when The Safdie brothers use the opening credits to convey Harley’s volatile time in the hospital. Though no words are heard over the melodic score, the lack of dialogue does little to quell the balloon of tension that is rapidly expanding.
Inspired by her memoir Mad Love In New York City, which documented her experiences being both homeless and a drug addict, Heaven Knows What succeeds in large part to the star making turn by Arielle Holmes. Instead of simply going through the motions, Holmes gives such a startlingly good performance that it is easy to forget that this is a fictional account of events. Her eyes display a captivating mixture of fire and vulnerability. Holmes’ work in the film is further accentuated by the wonderfully douchey performance by Caleb Landry Jones.
Similar to the scene where the Safdie brothers’ lens lingers on Harley’s inability to thread a needle – a perfect metaphor for her inability to find the increasingly narrow path to a better life away from Ilya – Heaven Knows What suggests that the solution is not as simply as it appears. The harrowing, and seemingly endless, cycle of addiction is filled with an equal measure of hope and despair. Love only helps to blur the lines even further. Hauntingly beautiful and relentlessly honest, Heaven Knows What is one of the year’s hidden gems.
Heaven Knows What begins its exclusive engagement at The Royal Cinema tomorrow.