Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, Heaven Knows What lets viewers shadow the brutal exploits of Harley (Arielle Holmes), a heroin addict living on the streets of New York City. Adapted from the soon-to-be-released memoirs of Arielle Holmes, the film is a unique composite of fact and fiction, and creates a portrait of drug addiction that feels far more authentic than most movies that deal with the issue—no doubt due largely to the fact that many of its actors are real-life addicts.
The film’s plot and story are appropriately bare, as Harley’s world is completely dominated by her drug addiction and attempts to win over her abusive ex-boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Unlike other “drug movies” (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Trainspotting), the film isn’t seeking to take you on a journey so much as immerse you instantly into the height of Harley’s dependency. It is a grim but sensitive character study that dares to look squarely at the bleak realities of this condition and reflect it back with sympathy. Harley operates with a frenetic and unpredictable range of emotions. She is sometimes wildly violent, sometimes sweet, often manipulative, and she will drift between these states within moments. During these bi-polar scenes it’s easy to be reminded that drug use is often a form of self-medication for those with undiagnosed mental health issues.
The film’s form is beautifully handled. Shot in a blend of documentary and verite styles, the cinematography keeps the otherwise grinding scenes unfolding compelling. The film’s score is one of the most stand out elements. Though much of the film is music-less, periodic bursts of heavy synth music pierce scenes with a sense of ruin. This is especially well done during the film’s title sequence—one of the most unnerving and extraordinary I’ve ever seen.
An effectively immersing, intelligent, and honest look at the realities of heroin addiction, Heaven Knows What is playing this month in Toronto at The Royal.