Reality and fiction merge in a haze of cinematic delirium in Heaven Knows What, a striking portrait of addiction that doesn’t say anything new — drugs are bad, kids — but it leaves a lasting and chilling impression.
Star Arielle Holmes isn’t just playing a New York City junkie, she’s playing herself.
A one-time homeless heroin addict who had attempted suicide, Holmes was found by filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie while they were working on a different movie. They urged her to put her story on paper, which she did — reportedly surreptitiously using Apple computer stores to do so.
That memoir, Mad Love in New York City, forms the basis for Heaven Knows What, a stark, grueling portrait of drug-fueled torment that calls to mind the 1971 classic The Panic in Needle Park.
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But, unlike that film, which featured professional actors, most of those on screen here, like Holmes, had been living on the streets or dealing with substance issues.
Holmes is Harley, the lightly fictionalized version of herself who, as the audience meets her, is in the midst of a fight with her psychologically manipulative and abusive boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, one of the pro actors in the main cast).
He’s also a homeless junkie but he revels in the power he holds over Harley who, in the midst of all her other addictions, is addicted to him as well.
When he urges her to kill herself, she tries to do just that — leading to a memorable opening-title sequence.
What follows is a chronicle of her next few days of aimless adventure involving panhandling, thieving, lying to herself and others and, of course, shooting up.
She’s surrounded by others like herself, including dealer and addict Mike (an excellent Buddy Duress, also a street person), a protector of sorts who looks out for Harley.
While he’s no angel, he’s Prince Charming compared to the aggressively cruel and sadistic Ilya. They form the nucleus of a makeshift family of street hustlers who don’t have much beyond each other.
Holmes is memorable as Harley, bringing a sense of haunted realism to a role she has lived from the inside out. It remains to be seen how Holmes handles other roles — she has just signed to co-star with Shia LeBeouf in American Honey, about a runaway teenager — but here she’s pitch perfect.
Not much happens in Heaven Knows What. There are no big revelations or come-to-Jesus moments.
But as a sketch of lives that are easily ignored and forgotten, it’s hard to forget.
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Heaven Knows What
Director: Ben and Joshua Safdie
Cast: Arielle Holmes, Buddy Duress, Caleb Landry Jones
Rated: R (drug use throughout, strong language, disturbing and violent images, sexuality, graphic nudity)
Running time: 94 min.