MIFF 2015: Heaven Knows What
The line between fact and fiction is often buried in biographical cinema, but it’s always there. This can lead to great art — one quick “Based on a True Story” and we’re on our way — but it’s the truly ambitious filmmaker who gladly rides this line. Sometimes the experiment alone is worth it, but occasionally this self-reflexivity results in something truly great. With Heaven Knows What, Josh and Benny Safdie confidently declare their place in a group alongside Kiarostami and Cassavettes, exploiting that line with harrowing results.
Heaven Knows What comprises two love stories, one between Harley (Arielle Holmes) and on-again-off-again boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), the other between Harley, her friends, and the drug they depend on. It’s the worst kind of attachment — dependency masquerading as love. The film lives within this cycle of abuse; much of the narrative tension comes alternately from Harley’s attempts to get her fix — at night, for her morning “wake-up”, sometimes both — and her chaotic, undying love for Ilya, whose presence lingers in every moment, regardless of screen time.
Far from the first gritty love and drugs story, Heaven Knows What is distinguished by Holmes and the Safdies' relentless approach to the material. An assault on all fronts (and in need of one hell of a trigger warning: drug use, self-harm, abuse, etc.), the film opens with a sequence that features one of the most grotesque acts of self-harm on screen and never lets you off from there. The opening credits that follow are accompanied by a synth-heavy aural assault which denies you any chance to truly recover, and the film packs in more moments like these over its 94 minute running time. Most pleas for a film to be seen in a cinema stem from its visuals, but Heaven Knows What makes its demands aurally. Much of the anxiety induced is a direct result of Benny Safdie’s sound design — there’s a lot of screaming in Heaven Knows What, and all of it hurts — while the Isao Tomita score is something like Tangerine Dream pushed to breaking point.
Along with starring in the film, Arielle Holmes serves as writer of the source material and inspiration for the lead character. The story goes that Josh Safdie, in the midst of researching the as-yet-unfinished Uncut Gems in New York’s Diamond District, met Arielle and, upon hearing her story, commissioned her to write a memoir that he and co-scriptwriter Ronald Bronstein could adapt into a screenplay. She did — mostly over long stretches in an Apple Store — and the subsequent manuscript became the basis for Heaven Knows What, as well as her upcoming novel Mad Love in in New York City.
Mad Love is the perfect subtitle for Heaven Knows What, and while on paper the intertwining story of love and addiction may seem pointed, the filmmakers never play it as such. They approach New York in a way rarely seen since the New Hollywood era; geographically it’s the same as any other film set in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but the filmmakers focus their attention instead on the peripheries of society, never allowing us to avert our eyes.
The truth in Arielle’s eyes underlines every moment in the film, bringing a sense of realism that’s near-impossible to fake; it's hard to tell where Arielle ends and Harley begins. But Holmes is also a gifted performer and a perfect supporting actor, imbuing everyone she interacts with with the same sense of realism she brings naturally to her own character. Caleb Landry Jones is the film’s Big Name, and it might just be my own cultural blind spot, but I didn’t recognise the X-Men: First Class actor. The intimacy of the Safdies' camera alongside Arielle’s performance convinced me that he was another nonprofessional actor in a cast heavy with them (Mike, Harley’s dealer and sometime romantic interest, is played by Buddy Duress, who spent much of the last year in prison; Scully, a wannabe-saviour to Harley, is played by Brooklyn rapper Necro).
This naturalism denies the viewer the luxury of detachment, resulting in a haunting story of addiction and destruction from the fringes of city life.