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.