Heaven Knows What

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - (Queen and Coun­try).

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

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