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Heaven Knows What

June 12, 2015
Heaven Knows What

As film production gets cheaper and more accessible, we were supposed to get a democratization of content, where all sorts of different stories get told. As it happens, the means of production is still generally in the hands of upper-middle class white guys, and most of them want to tell stories either about how their dad was mean or what if this one girl loved them back. As interesting as those stories can be the first time around, they’re kind of low on the scale of problems worth thinking about.

You know what’s a real problem? heroin addiction. Not in the glamorous way of Lou Reed or Vincent Vega or Trainspotting, but in the slow grind of day-to-day addiction while homeless on the streets of a major urban center. Josh and Benny Safdie may be relatively privileged themselves, but they use their camera to tell the stories that Arielle Holmes wrote down for them in her unpublished memoir Mad Love in New York City, and they’ve adapted these stories into Heaven Knows What, a powerful and unapologetic film starring Holmes herself as the lightly-fictionalized “Harley”.

Most of the time we spend with Harley is about getting her next fix. It’s not even about getting high; she needs twenty bucks for her maintenance dose of two hundred-milligram packets, or “bags”, of heroin just to keep from feeling sick. If she wants to feel a rush, she needs two more bags. That’s at least morning and night, and before she’s even considered where she’s going to sleep.

There are shelters, sure, but they aren’t about to let her shoot up under their roof. Besides, Harley had to leave the last shelter after a giant falling-out with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones); we just see the end of this at the start of the film when Harley slices her wrist open in a bizarre act of contrition. It’s a stupid and silly decision on her part — especially for a guy who treats her the way Ilya does — but life as a homeless addict doesn’t usually come from or lead to the best decision-making skills.

So Harley sticks close to her dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress), who crashes at some lady’s apartment for fifteen dollars a night. That brings her budget up to at least $55 every day just for heroin and shelter. She gets most of what she can from “spadging” — begging for spare change — but she’s resourceful. An unattended mailbag means grabbing a handful of envelopes in case one of them contains something valuable; shoplifted convenience store energy shots can be resold to newsstands for below their wholesale price. And she can always hustle to make a deal with Mike and hope his own habit keeps him from remembering what exactly she owes.

There’s a whole life and culture that exists here at the margins of the city, and most of us just look right past it. Harley and Ilya have no problems fighting and yelling out in the open because they’re invisible to most of the people around them. Besides, when you’re living on the street there’s not a lot of other, more private places to go. Harley also carouses with her friends, often in the parks at night with a bottle of liquor someone has scared up during the day, still studiously ignored by the rest of the city.

The Safdie brothers don’t present a nice, neat story of redemption here. The real Arielle Holmes seems to be pulling her life together now, but it’s largely on the back of this project, not within the film itself. Heaven Knows What shows us a few days — maybe a week — in her life. It’s as raw and real as anything you can find on the screen, and it’s not about playing to some patronizing mainstream narrative script of how an addiction story should be. As much as we’ve learned to look away from those on the margins, the Safdies push us to look and see the person right in front of us, and to take her for who she is.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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