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Heaven Knows What, four ways

During the first week of Critics Campus 2015, our critics took part in a live-editing workshop. Four of them reviewed Josh and Benny Safdie’s latest feature, Heaven Knows What, and then edited their drafts with Nick Feik, editor of The Monthly. Read their final reviews below – and don’t forget to check out all of our Critics Campus coverage.

Review by Christy Collins

Directors Josh and Bennie Safdie draw their inspiration from New York City. “You can film any part of the city,” said Bennie in a Q&A session after a screening of their latest feature, Heaven Knows What, at MIFF, “and it’ll still bleed New York.” In Heaven Knows What, this plays out in a quasi-naturalistic drama about life on the streets in the Upper West Side.

Amateur actress Arielle Holmes plays the vulnerable Harley in a film inspired by her own life experiences. The cast is in part composed of amateur actors playing themselves. Both the professionals and the amateurs give convincing performances – Holmes, in particular, brings an authenticity to her role.

Before the opening titles, Harley attempts suicide by slitting her wrist in a park at the insistence of her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). The titles then play over a scene in the psychiatric institution in which Harley subsequently finds herself. Handheld camera work is accompanied by loud, jarring electronic music – highlighting Harley’s disconnection and discomfort. It works so well that the audience is perhaps almost as relieved as Harley is when, shortly after, she is ejected back onto the streets of New York.

The film is a double love story: Harley is irresistibly drawn to both heroin and Ilya. The two are intertwined to such an extent that any hope of an escape from one requires the escape from both, which seems impossible. As the film progresses, we follow a small circle of junkies as they move through New York in a world almost completely separate to that of the mainstream concerns of the city. Ultimately, the closing titles play as Harley is on the periphery of yet another tedious, drug-fuelled conversation – and it is clear that her situation has not appreciably changed.

The problem for an audience here is that they do not feel the same attraction to the drug that the characters do, so it becomes difficult to engage with the endless cycle of seeking out the next hit. As a result, the film suffers from an inevitable monotony. Heaven Knows What is a project in naturalism that captures the reality of New York street life, but I felt as if I was stuck listening to one long, rambling, directionless conversation, and I just wanted it to stop.

Review by Conor Bateman

Josh and Benny Safdie make features and shorts that intimately reflect the worldview of their characters. Their latest, Heaven Knows What, is an immersive look at the day-to-day existence of a homeless heroin addict in New York City. With a screenplay based on the unpublished memoir of lead actress Arielle Holmes, the film is a confronting window into a world oft unseen. It never shies away from the brutal reality of Holmes’s life on the streets; one of the very first scenes shows her suicide attempt, intended to provoke a reaction in her ex-boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), whom she sees as the love of her life.

After she’s released from hospital, and a psychiatric facility, Harley (Holmes) goes straight back onto the streets – asking for change at street corners, buying and using heroin, and slowly bringing herself back into Ilya’s life. While Harley is a fully formed character, the information we’re given about Ilya is mostly piecemeal. An unexpected voiceover monologue near the film’s end isn’t quite enough to effectively capture the depths of Harley’s devotion to him, and leaves the central romance in the film feeling almost artificial.

The Safdies are more successful when they clearly convey tone and mood. Rambling anecdotes delivered by drug dealer Mike are wonderfully underscored by Isao Tomita’s haunting electronic renditions of French composer Debussy. The in-demand Sean Price Williams shot the film, a far cry from the distinctly retro imagery of his work with Alex Ross Perry. The cinematography is a mixed bag, though, caught between a stark realism and a visually experimental approach. The latter is more compelling but there’s nowhere near enough of it, and this lack of visual consistency leaves the narrative itself feeling almost at an arm’s length from the viewer.

In a post-screening Q&A at MIFF, Benny Safdie explained that one of their aims was to avoid romanticising the experience of drug addiction. The naturalism of the performances goes a long way to ensure this: Holmes delivers a stunning turn as a version of herself, and all of the cast, bar sole professional actor Jones, also play off their own life experiences.

Like Sean Baker’s Tangerine, also playing at MIFF this year, Heaven Knows What is an important and illuminating piece of American independent cinema. While it lacks that film’s sense of clear vision and potent marriage of humour and emotion, it remains a unique character study and an oft-heartbreaking look at addiction.

Review by David Heslin

Do we really need another movie about heroin addiction? There’s certainly been no dearth of independent cinema addressing the topic over the course of the last decade or two, no deficiency of bleak cautionary tales about the allures and dangers of hard drug abuse. But Heaven Knows What, the new film by Ben and Josh Safdie, is more than just another derivative of Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. It is something sharp, forceful and altogether invigorating.

Heaven Knows What started life as a partially fictionalised version of the experiences of its lead actor, Arielle Holmes. Most of the cast have been – and, in many cases, still are – heroin addicts living on the streets of New York. This does not merely blur the lines between fiction and documentary – it also adds a sense of authenticity to the film that even some documentaries, shot from a safe distance by an impassive observer, may lack.

As depicted here, the New York heroin subculture is a kind of teeming microcosm; it’s something existing within the city, but somehow apart from it. When characters scream incoherently at each other on busy city streets, oblivious to the pedestrians around them, it’s as if they’re in a parallel universe.

That sense of disorientation is conveyed by the film’s look, too. Heaven Knows What’s opening sequence, in particular, is breathtaking: all panicky handheld, tight close-ups and pulsating soundtrack. It’s a slight disappointment, then, that the film settles into a conventional vérité style. The sense of urgency that has been cultivated, however, stays very much intact.

Within these grim surroundings, two familiar narratives play out. One is a surprisingly run-of-the-mill love triangle between Harley (Holmes) and two men. The other – one that most heroin-addiction films share out of necessity – revolves around the endless pursuit of money, shelter and a safe place in which to shoot up.

What is most striking about Heaven Knows What, however, is that it isn’t even primarily a film about drug use. The persistent themes here are vulnerability and survival – challenges that many of the actors remain intimately aware of. Are there ethical dilemmas in that? No doubt, but there is empowerment too. For many of the disadvantaged people we see on screen, this is the only means of sharing their experiences. That’s a role that cinema could be entrusted with more often.

Review by Ali Schnabel

We are faced with a tense image in the first few minutes of Heaven Knows What: pinprick pupils peer out from bulging eyes, and a razorblade trembles against a wrist. The eyes belong to actress Arielle Holmes, a formerly homeless drug addict who plays protagonist Harley. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Go Get Some Rosemary, Lenny Cooke) met Holmes on the street in New York City and encouraged her to write her story down – which they then adapted for the screen and cast Holmes as herself. The film details Holmes’s former life on the streets and her abusive and tumultuous relationship with fellow addict Ilya (a terrifyingly authentic Caleb Landry Jones). Underscored by a moody synth soundtrack and frantic, sweeping cinematography, Heaven Knows What is a gritty examination of street life.

Mostly steering away from the voyeuristic, melodramatic conventions of other junkie films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Basketball Diaries, there is realism to Heaven Knows What. Testament to this is the fact that while the characters end up in various shelters, hospitals and stores throughout the film, very few non-addict characters exist on screen for more than a few minutes; the audience occupies only the junkie-bubble that Harley and co. inhabit.

Yet another film about drug addiction raises the question: is Heaven Knows What adding anything new to the plethora of existing content? While the narrative of the film is disjointed and at times bleak in a calculated way, the film is more about Harley than her addiction. Holmes is captivating and complex in a way that female protagonists rarely get to be: she is highly emotional yet strong willed, deeply flawed and likeable all at once. Her performance is astonishing given the context – she was on a course of methadone while filming scenes where she was going through the familiar motions of shooting up.

Luke Davies (author of Candy) told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2006 that the critically acclaimed film Requiem for a Dream was “all fireworks and no substance”. It’s an argument that could also apply to Heaven Knows What – a forfeiture of a human story in favour of soul-crushing bleakness. The content of Heaven Knows What is more compelling for the film’s realistic tone and look, and the presentation of drugs feels slightly less stubbornly fatalistic than in other films. In considering the fact that the events, according to Holmes, remain largely unchanged from her book and the depth of her character, one doesn’t feel exploitative in watching her life play out on the screen.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus coverage