Directed by: Ben Safdie & Joshua Safdie.
Written by: Ronald Bronstein & Joshua Safdie inspired by a book written by Arielle Holmes.
Starring: Arielle Holmes (Harley), Caleb Landry Jones (Ilya), Buddy Duress (Mike), Ron Braunstein (Skully), Eleonore Hendricks (Erica), Yuri Pleskun (Tommy).
Francois Truffaut once famously said that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, because no matter what you do, you would end up making war look glamorous. I think there have been a few movies that have proven Truffaut wrong, but the point is a valid one – it is hard not to make war look exciting. You could say something similar about movies about drugs – it’s hard to make a truly anti-drug film, because no matter what you do, you almost have to acknowledge that drugs use can be fun, or at least make you feel good for a time. Many drug movies include the inevitable slide into oblivion and death or jail, but it often comes after an hour of people having a hell of lot of fun on drugs. Heaven Knows What is somewhat different then – this could hardly be described as a glamorous or fun film, and none of the characters ever seem to be having much fun on drugs either. When the movie opens, everyone in the film is already at the point where they have stopped using drugs to make themselves feel good – they just continue to use them to prevent themselves from feeling horrible. The same thing can be said about the central relationship in the movie – between the main character Harley (Arielle Holmes) and her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). They do not seem even to like each other much anymore, let alone love each other. But they’re stuck with each other regardless. They are stuck in a rut, but cannot move forward. There are as addicted to each other as they are to drugs.
The story of how Heaven Knows What was made is at least as interesting as the movie itself. Apparently the directors, Joshua and Ben Safdie, were researching a different movie when they bumped into star Arielle Holmes, and was immediately taken with her. She was beautiful, but obviously suffering. They encouraged her to write her story – which she did (apparently largely in Apple Stores), and the result was a book that ended up being the basis of the movie –with Holmes acting out scenes from her own troubled life. This is a risky gambit, but it pays off because Holmes has instant screen presence, and never overdoes it – never goes over the top into drug fueled craziness that many actors would. It is a performance of quiet intensity that holds your attention throughout. Holmes has apparently turned her life around – and has turned her stunning debut performance into a few other acting jobs – whether or not she can play something else, I have no idea, but she is brilliant in this film.
Her Harley is a heroin addict, who is in love with Ilya – who is angry with her as the movie begins (for reasons only eluded to). She says she’ll kill herself to prove her love to him, and he eggs her on to do just that – resulting in the kind of ill-fated suicide attempt that only makes sense to drug addicts. She survives, of course, but their relationship seems doomed. Instead, she takes up with Mike (Buddy Duress) for a time – which makes sense. He is a drug dealer, so getting her daily dose will be easier, and he also has connections to a place to stay. That’s really all Harley needs. Eventually though, she’ll drift back to Ilya – even though they’re probably better off without each other.
Heaven Knows What is a largely plotless film – which is befitting its characters. It drifts from one day to the next, where each day has the same basic problems that require different solutions. The movie concentrates on the various scams Harley and company pull off to try and get money – stealing mail in the hopes of finding something (their big score there? A Banana Republic gift card), or stealing a lot of Five Hour Energy Drinks from a pharmacy, and reselling them to a news stand. The film takes place in New York, but is about those areas of the city that are often hiding in plain site – where rich people walking their dog co-mingle with the likes of Harley – or where the place to go when it’s cold outside is the library until they kick you out. There is not a moment in the film that feels inauthentic. The Safdie’s get almost uncomfortably close to the actors, not letting them out of the frame, and blurring the background so we’re trapped with them. The brilliant use of electronic versions of Debussy songs is disorienting, and effective.
The problem with movie like Heaven Knows What is always in how to end them. If you don’t have much a plot, there’s really no way of winding it down. Heaven Knows What doesn’t really end, it just sort of stops – having come full circle once again, with nothing resolves, nothing learned. And that is precisely the sad point of it all.