Find­ing a home on the big screen

Arielle Holmes’ for­mer scuf­fling life in­forms a mov­ing film

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY MARK OLSEN >>>

“You want to know the kind of longer story, but it’s cra­zier?”

Arielle Holmes was re­count­ing how she went from be­ing a home­less teenage drug ad­dict on the streets of New York City to star­ring in a fic­tion­al­ized adap­ta­tion of her mem­oir, a film that met with ac­claim at fes­ti­vals around the world.

“Heaven Knows What,” play­ing now in Los An­ge­les and New York and set to ex­pand around the coun­try, is di­rected by the film­mak­ing broth­ers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie based on Holmes’ un­pub­lished mem­oir “Mad Love in New York City.”

The film has a re­lent­less en­ergy, by turns har­row­ing and mov­ing, as it fol­lows a young woman named Har­ley (Holmes), whose life is hy­per-fo­cused on the twin ad­dic­tions of heroin and her de­struc­tive boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). When not with the dark and mys­te­ri­ous Ilya, Har­ley hangs around an­other ad­dict, Mike (Buddy Duress). Their days are spent hus­tling and scrap­ing for the essen­tials of food, shel­ter and the next fix, but also com­pan­ion­ship and so­lace.

With bold film­mak­ing choices — in­clud­ing a bravura ti­tle se­quence that com­pactly de­picts Har­ley’s time in a hos­pi­tal af­ter a sui­cide at­tempt — the movie plunges the viewer into this for­bid­ding world.

“I think the movie is 100% true,” Holmes said. “There are things that are ex­ag­ger­ated or dif­fer­ent, but we’ve all talked about how some­times in a movie to cap­ture the feel­ing of the truth you need to be more dras­tic. But

as far as the feel­ings and emo­tions, even the things that are ex­ag­ger­ated are re­ally based off the truth.”

Work­ing with cine­matog­ra­pher Sean Price Wil­liams, the Safdies kept the cam­era on a tri­pod or Steadicam and used long lenses to shoot from as far away as they could, even for close-ups. This cre­ated an im­mer­sive look and feel for the movie, some­thing of a dark, ro­man­tic psy­chodrama hor­ror story, con­jur­ing what Josh Safdie called “the opera of the street.”

“We went so far out of our way to make it not a doc­u­men­tary,” Benny Safdie said. “But the end re­sult is peo­ple still feel like it’s real.”

Holmes, 21, is orig­i­nally from Bay­onne, N.J. (“not a place you’d want to go,” she said). She first tried heroin at 17 and was home­less off and on for three years. She would of­ten re­draw comic book pan­els, and one day while she was pan­han­dling for spare change — spang­ing, it’s called in the film — a man saw her draw­ings and asked if she was in­ter­ested in jew­elry de­sign.

This led to an un­paid in­tern­ship in New York’s mid­town jew­elry dis­trict, where the Safdies had been re­search­ing a sep­a­rate, project. Josh Safdie one day ap­proached a young woman he thought would be a Rus­sian of­fice worker but turned out to be Holmes. The two struck up a friend­ship, and a short time later she re­vealed to him the truth of her sit­u­a­tion.

Con­vinced of Holmes’ po­ten­tial screen ap­peal, with her heavy-lid­ded eyes and sharp fea­tures, the Safdies tried to cre­ate a role for her in other projects. At the same time, Josh en­cour­aged her to write her story, which she did in part by typing in Ap­ple stores for up­ward of nine hours at a time. Those pages be­came the ba­sis for the screen­play to “Heaven Knows What.”

“My at­trac­tion was we found a movie star. And like all the great movies, you make a project for your star,” said Josh, 31. “And her story hap­pened to be ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing, as well as the in­sight that she brought to it. She was so present, yet so re­moved, there was such a con­tra­dic­tion at play. And the drama of it is in­cred­i­ble. Like a full-on opera.”

Benny Safdie, 29, noted the dif­fer­ence be­tween Holmes’ life and the abun­dance of sto­ries about home­less peo­ple, kids and drugs.

“I think it was the way she de­scribed peo­ple, the names and the de­tails, all of that was some­thing new, a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on this life,” he said. “It was a life that I didn’t know about, and it was just in­ter­est­ing to dive into.”

Though Josh had been meet­ing with Holmes for months, Benny didn’t meet her in per­son un­til right be­fore film­ing be­gan in March 2014.

“In a way, it was a bal­anc­ing act of ob­jec­tiv­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity,” Benny said. “Josh was in the thick of it, and I was hold­ing back. So for a long time I only knew her through the writ­ing. It was like a check-and-bal­ance thing. The movie, it had to have th­ese per­spec­tives in or­der to be what it is. You can’t have just one thing.”

This un­con­ven­tional mix of fic­tion and re­al­ity is noth­ing new in the work of the New York na­tives. The 2008 film “The Plea­sure of Be­ing Robbed” was about a young woman who stole what she needed partly for ne­ces­sity and partly for some mad­cap view of the world. The 2009 film “Daddy Lon­glegs” was a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal tale of two young sons raised by a sin­gle fa­ther. Their 2013 doc­u­men­tary “Lenny Cooke” told of a high school bas­ket­ball star whose ca­reer fiz­zled out be­fore it even started.

A touch of slap­stick ec­cen­tric­ity is of­ten in what they do, such as when Josh Safdie passed him­self off as a Ukrainian im­mi­grant to an on-the-street TV news­cast dur­ing a hur­ri­cane in 2011. Last fall at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, rather than do­ing in­ter­views in a ho­tel suite or booth at an up­scale restau­rant, Holmes and the Safdies could be found in a com­bi­na­tion bi­cy­cle shop and cinema club down an un­paved side al­ley.

“Heaven Knows What” also played high-pro­file fes­ti­vals in Los An­ge­les, New York and Venice, Italy, and picked up two prizes at the Tokyo In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, in­clud­ing best direc­tor. The film played at the doc­u­men­tary-cen­tered True/False fes­ti­val in Columbia, Mo., and was nom­i­nated for a Hetero­dox award at the doc-fo­cused Cinema Eye Hon­ors. The prize is given to films that “il­lu­mi­nate the pos­si­ble on both sides of the fic­tion/non­fic­tion divide.”

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody lauded the film for its “un­flinch­ing rough­ness and in­tense ten­der­ness.” Holmes is the ground­ing force in the film, her per­for­mance alert and alive to the very el­e­men­tal stakes of the story. Benny Safdie re­called that on the first day of shoot­ing, his sound equip­ment picked up Holmes be­tween takes ask­ing her­self over and over, “Is this a dream?”

“Be­fore I started do­ing this, I thought it would be very strange, do­ing things that hap­pened to me,” she said. “But when I was there, I thought, even though this event might have hap­pened to me, it hap­pened all the way back there. I’m not in that mo­ment, feel­ing those things any­more. I’m some­body else now, I’m 100 light years away. So I had to re-cre­ate the emo­tion within my­self. So even though it was some­thing that al­ready hap­pened, it was some­thing new.”

Holmes was on methadone dur­ing pro­duc­tion, and af­ter shoot­ing fin­ished the Safdies paid for her to go to a re­hab fa­cil­ity in Florida. Re­cently she has been living in Los An­ge­les, try­ing to make a go of it as an actress. Buddy Duress, who played Mike, was con­victed of drug-re­lated charges af­ter film­ing ended and was in jail when the movie was on the fall fes­ti­val cir­cuit. He’s out now and tak­ing act­ing classes in New York. New York mag­a­zine re­ported that Ilya Leon­tyev, Holmes’ ex-boyfriend and in­spi­ra­tion for Jones’ char­ac­ter, died of an ap­par­ent over­dose in April at age 25.

Holmes has said that she had been living sec­ond to sec­ond. Now, af­ter writ­ing her mem­oir, star­ring in “Heaven Knows What” and get­ting clean, she has started see­ing be­yond the mo­ment.

“Time has changed since then,” Holmes said. “I re­al­ize now that it ex­ists. Not ev­ery­thing has to hap­pen in­stantly.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

ARIELLE HOLMES, who stars in “Heaven Knows What,” with Benny, left, and Josh Safdie, the broth­ers who di­rected the film.

Ra­dius-TWC

“HEAVEN Knows What,” which has re­ceived ac­claim at fes­ti­val, fea­tures Holmes and Buddy Duress.

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