One junkie story tends to be much like another, so give brothers Josh and Benny Safdie credit for crafting one that’s genuinely distinctive. Part of that stems from the quasi-documentary nature of the project: While researching a different movie in New York’s Diamond District, the Safdies encountered a young recovering heroin addict named Arielle Holmes and were so taken with her that they encouraged her to write about her experiences. Mad Love In New York City, the resulting memoir (largely composed in an Apple store!), hasn’t been published. But the Safdies went ahead and adapted it into a film, casting Holmes in the lead role, as a version of herself. It was a risky gambit that paid off handsomely, as her live-wire performance (opposite one professional actor and a lot of other non-pros) gives Heaven Knows What an electrifying immediacy that sets it apart from the usual cycle of stealing, scoring, and fixing. And the real-life aspect has been supplemented by aggressively formalist technique, lending it still more power.
Holmes, who’s fictionalized here as Harley, actually suffered from two addictions during her teen years. One was to smack; the other, not unrelated, was to a fellow junkie named Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), with whom she shared a tempestuous relationship that rose and fell in conjunction with their supply of heroin. Early in the film, Harley confronts Ilya in the library—one thing that’s changed since the days of The Panic In Needle Park is that junkies now check their email and Facebook accounts on public computers—and threatens to slit her wrists if he doesn’t take her back; when he cruelly urges her to go ahead and do it, she immediately does. That’s just the beginning of a intense series of episodes, alternately brutal and lyrical, that unfold over a couple of days on the Upper West Side, where Harley, Ilya, and their mutual friends survive by stealing mail from postal workers’ carrier bags (looking for gift cards they can sell at a discount) and scrounging spare beds from kindly residents who can use a few extra dollars every day.
The Safdies’ previous films, which include Lenny Cooke and Daddy Longlegs, have their fans, but aren’t noted for being particularly adventurous. Heaven Knows What, by contrast, sometimes functions as an all-out assault. Its bravura opening credit sequence consists of a jittery extended shot of Harley stumbling through Bellevue’s psych ward following her suicide attempt, accompanied by aggressively atonal electronic music that suggests science fiction gone sour. (The film’s score is by Isao Tomita, its cinematography by Sean Price Williams.) Subsequent scenes are nearly as arresting, with each one shedding further light on this desperate little corner of the city, which the Safdies respect but never romanticize. Because there’s no real narrative—just the constant effort to score and survive, plus Harley’s dysfunctional on/off love affair with Ilya—Heaven Knows What doesn’t so much conclude as just stop, which is less than totally satisfying. Holmes, however, with her piercing eyes and her remarkable ability to be guarded one moment and impassioned the next, is a natural camera subject. It’ll be very interesting to see where she goes from here.