Heaven Knows What
Heaven Knows What, drama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
This gritty, slice-of-life immersion into the youth streetdrug culture of New York City’s Upper West Side is heavy on authenticity and light on story development. It features a cast of (with one exception) nonactors, plucked from the world it describes. First among them is Arielle Holmes, on whose soon-to-be-published memoir Mad Love in New York City this film is based.
It was one of those Lana Turner-esque discoveries. Josh Safdie, half of the sibling directorial team with his younger brother Benny (Go Get Some Rosemary), spotted the saucer-eyed, elfin Holmes emerging from a subway station and saw a star quality in her. At the time she was a skinny nineteen-year-old heroin addict, living from fix to fix. He cast her in the film he and his brother were preparing and convinced her to write about her life, which she did by using computers in Apple stores around the city. As her story emerged, the Safdies decided to scrap the film they had been planning and focus on her life instead.
A junkie’s life, it turns out, can be one of intense monotony. Its goal is a glassy-eyed stupor. It is punctuated with needles, lubricated by booze and substitutes like DayQuil, and underwritten with theft and begging (“spanging” in street lingo). “I can make 15 bucks in 20 minutes,” Harley assures Mike (Buddy Duress), her friend and dealer, when he demands payment for the fix she needs. Her office is a patch of sidewalk and a hand-lettered cardboard panhandling sign.
Harley is the movie’s central character, played by Holmes and intimately based on her very recent history. When we first see her, she is pleading for forgiveness from her boyfriend, the stoned, lank-haired, loutish Ilya, played by actor Caleb Landry Jones
The real Ilya was around for the shooting, and he and Jones hung out together during the production. There is nothing about Ilya’s character as seen onscreen that suggests even a glowing ember of humanity, but Harley loves him. “It doesn’t matter what he does. I still love him,” she tells Mike.
It’s a lot easier to understand the appeal of the smack she shoots into her arm than to see what she sees in Ilya. When she threatens suicide, he laughs, and when he finds her out in the park a little later, still alive, he jeers, “If you loved me you’d have killed yourself by now.” When she pulls out the razor blade and bares her wrist, he chortles “comeon-comeoncomeon!”
The attempted suicide scene comes early, and it’s the action highlight of the movie. Much of the rest of the film focuses on the numbing, hopeless, momentto-moment repetition of life in the deadening embrace of heroin. Some of the grimness is relieved by the poetic camerawork of Sean Price Williams. He shoots a lot in close-up, but even those shots were apparently done with a long lens from a distance away, so that the mostly amateur cast was seldom crowded by the camera’s presence. And when he pulls back, some of the long shots of the characters walking through sidewalk crowds or down tree-lined Upper West Side neighborhoods give an intriguing sense of how this underworld mingles with the more familiar world of people who have jobs and apartments and pets.
Heaven Knows What relentlessly re-creates the atmosphere of the life of a loose community of young junkies on the streets of Manhattan. And Holmes emerges from it with an aura of screen presence that will gain her entrée into a movie career for at least the immediate future. From the snippets of her writing that float periodically on the soundtrack, it’s hard to say how good her book is and what her future holds in the literary field.
A little research suggests Arielle Holmes has straightened out her life, that she has kicked or is in the process of kicking her drug habit and taking off on a trajectory that will leave her old companions far behind. But one never knows. There’s nothing in the film itself, aside from its very existence, to suggest redemption and happily-ever-after, and there is a title card at the top of the end credits that starkly reminds us of the more predictable real-life end of such a story.
There’s a place for a movie like this that exposes and confronts us with a world we are happy to keep at arm’s length. It comes out of a tradition that runs from Man With a Golden Arm through The Panic in Needle Park and Requiem for a Dream. (Those first two seem almost quaintly mainstream now, but in their day they had the power to shock.) Spend an uncomfortable hour and a half with Heaven Knows
What and you’ll come out with a better grasp of the street junkie’s life, but you may find yourself muttering “Heaven knows why." — Jonathan Richards
Upper West Side story: Caleb Landry Jones and Arielle Holmes