Sydney Underground Film Festival Review: Heaven Knows What (USA, 2014)

There is a moment in Heaven Knows What when a mobile phone is thrown up into the night sky and a surreal sparkle of fireworks cracks and fizzles from the point at which the phone disappears. This is the only moment of beauty and relief that the film offers. The rest of the time, it’s rough and gritty and grey. But that’s not intended as a criticism – the film’s authenticity and brutal honesty about life as a heroin addict on the streets of New York are refreshingly new and captivating.

Of course, the authenticity factor can largely be attributed to the fact that this film is all about the true experiences of Arielle Holmes, the lead actress. Holmes plays a fictionalised version of herself called Harley, who spends her days trying to keep a handle on her two addictions – one to heroin and the other to her destructive junkie boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Directors Josh and Benny Safdie met Holmes while researching for another film and encouraged her to write her experiences down. She did, spending nine hours a day in an Apple store to do so, and the result was her as yet unpublished memoir ‘Mad Love in New York City’ on which the film is based.

Crucially, the Safdies neither criticise nor romanticise Harley’s lifestyle. Instead, they simply offer a journal entry style portrait of a few days in the life of a homeless heroin addict, drifting from moment to moment and one short-term goal to the next. Pulling together some money – either by begging for change, sifting through mail for gift cards, or selling stolen energy drinks to street vendors – scoring a few bags, shooting up, finding a place to crash and then doing it all over again.

The Safdies also avoid giving voice to any characters that aren’t the fellow addicts and dealers that Harley spends her time with. There are no police officers, social workers, doctors, nurses, or disgusted members of the public weighing in on the story. They’re there in the background, walking with a wide berth around the drama, trying to mind their own business and keep on their way, but there’s no attempt to present a ‘clean’ alternative or a way out. This is Harley’s story and hers alone. And it’s one that is ignored in many ways, swept under the rug in favour of things more beautiful and light. There is a brief but meaningful scene in Heaven Knows What which demonstrates this: Harley and her friend Mike (Buddy Duress) are rifling through mail under an overpass when a bag of dog poo is dropped on them from above by a woman walking her dog. The struggles of the homeless and drug addicts matter so little to this woman that she can obliviously fling her dog’s feces on to two people and go on with her day like nothing has happened.

A busy electronic musical score by Isao Tomita (with an original song contributed by Ariel Pink) heightens the tension and brings to mind Goblin’s music for Dario Argento’s Giallo films of the ‘70s. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams uses long lenses from great distances, even for close-ups, effectively capturing the story in the Safdie’s cinema verité style and adding extra weight to the film’s unabashed realness. The performances are impressive, especially given that most of the actors, with Landry Jones as the only exception, are amateurs. Holmes is especially captivating, childlike and mopey in one scene and then riled up with rage and passion in the next.

Heaven Knows What may be another film about junkies, but it’s a refreshingly original and honest take from the perspective of someone who has been there and, herself, knows what’s what.


Heaven Knows What screened as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival


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