If you’ve ever strolled down a bustling metropolitan city sidewalk, you’ve probably caught glimpses of homelessness in the corner of your eye. Maybe you’ve noticed sleeping bags nestled in doorways and highway underpasses; heard panhandlers beseeching passersby for change; walked swiftly past long queues outside of overcrowded shelters. Rather than discretely observe these folks while pretending not to, Josh and Benny Safdie want us to stare them in the face. In their new film, Heaven Knows What, they treat the sheltered masses as part of their backdrop for a tale of lives lived moment to moment. And what they’ve accomplished strikes with startling clarity.
The Safdies chiefly focus on one life in particular, that of Harley (Arielle Holmes), a young woman who’s as addicted to heroin as she is to her brutally apathetic boyfriend, Illya (Caleb Landry Jones). In truth, that means the sibling duo is actually fascinated with Holmes: The film is an adaptation of her own experiences, using her as-yet unpublished novel Mad Love in New York City as its blueprint. We’re introduced to Harley and Illya in Heaven Knows What’s opening credits in a sequence that begins with the pair wrapped up in a lovers’ embrace and ends in an act of self-inflicted violence. Illya demands proof of Harley’s love be paid in blood—she acquiesces, and we’re left to collect our jaws from the floor. From its earliest moments, much of what the Safdies and Holmes show us is so raw it could only be genuine.
Traditional narratives have conditioned us to believe that for Harley, things can only go up from here. Heaven Knows What isn’t that kind of story. She survives and convalesces in Bellevue, but even in recovery her existence is fraught, and upon discharge she’s more or less right back where she started. Instead of Illya, though, Harley connects with Mike (Buddy Duress), a fast-talking, low-level drug dealer who solemnly swears in his stutteringly poetic manner that he’ll take care of her. It’s a promise made seemingly in earnest, but Mike eventually reveals himself as only a slight improvement over Illya, who constantly hangs over the film like a spectre and occasionally reappears to alternately serve as both tormentor and tempter to Harley.
It’s easy to accept Harley’s ups and downs as “real” whether you’re aware of Holmes’ story or not. Josh Safdie met her on a subway platform in New York City while doing research in the Diamond District; after getting to know Holmes, he encouraged her to start writing. (She penned her memoir in Apple stores.) Something about that feels like kismet, though more critical viewers may be inclined to qualify Heaven Knows What as exploitation. But as filmmakers, Josh and Benny share a singularly sensitive eye. They have no taste to engage in our nostalgie de la boue—instead, their movie reads like an act of advocacy, and it’s a vivid testament to the strength of their bond with Holmes. For her part, she’s remarkably brave about having the good, the bad and the ugly of her existence committed to film, and, yes, against all odds there is some hope to be found here, joy that bubbles up amidst heartbreak, cruelty and callous indifference.
Heaven Knows What runs such an ugly emotional gamut that knowledge of its origins as a production proves burdensome. Aesthetically, the Safdies’ have made a picture of urgent, abrasive beauty. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams captures Holmes and her excellent supporting cast through a combination of tight close-ups and long shots that lend the film an air of removed intimacy. Ultimately, he’s almost as much the star of Heaven Knows What as Holmes, who matches up well with Jones, the film’s most notable professional actor. Cinema lets us engage with difficult subject matter through a veneer of security. But something like Heaven Knows What pierces that veil. By its very nature, it pushes the boundaries of our personal comfort. It’s clear we need more films like that.
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Writers: Josh Safdie (screenplay), Ronald Bronstein (screenplay), Arielle Holmes (novel)
Starring: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress
Release Date: May 29, 2015 (NY/LA); June 12, 2015 (wide)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.