‘Heaven Knows What’
Directors: Ben and Joshua Safdie
Stars: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones
4 (out of 5) Globes
It’s safe to say few drug movies have ever been as nonjudgmental as “Heaven Knows What,” a rough and tumble indie whose cameras push in perilously close to a batch of young heroin addicts roaming the streets of New York City. It’s not pro-drug per se but it does get them, and it gets, better than most films, that being hooked on dope is a lifestyle and, in part, a job. There’s almost no shooting up in the film, but its characters, even when they’re straight, live in a constant state of hyper-agitation. Harley, its lead character, doesn’t walk; she barrels, eyes bulging, emotions flaring. Even when she’s quiet she’s on-edge.
Harley herself is partly real; she’s played by Arielle Holmes, a real-life former addict spotted on the subway by filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie, and convinced to write her memoirs. Those memoirs become the indie filmmakers’ latest film, and another in their string of movies about New Yorkers living with both ends of the candle burning. Their last fiction feature, “Daddy Longlegs,” hung tight with a bad dad struggling to take care of his young kids. In a sense he’s a spiritual cousin to Harley, both of them urban prowlers on the fringes. He hatched relentless harebrained mini-schemes to juggle career, parenthood and his own neuroses; she skulks about the bustling city streets anonymously, panhandling, stealing or hanging out. Before the opening credits have belatedly cropped up, she’s already tried to kill herself and gone in and out of a hospital.
Remarkably, the Safdies neither glamorize nor demonize what she’s doing. “Heaven Knows What” can’t be reduced to an anti-drug ad, as many drug movies are, in part because the drugs are scarce, in part because there’s a detachment, even a faint darkly comic edge. Sean Price Williams’ camera is always in on the move, and the cuts don’t dwell long either. It feels like a sci-fi film, complete with an electronic score touting throbbing bass. It doesn’t share the same cinematic DNA as “Trainspotting” or “Requiem for a Dream,” much less the homeless youths movie “Where the Day Takes You,” where some of Hollywood’s prettiest roamed the Los Angeles streets with the finest hair gel. (Only Jones is a professional actor, and he dirties himself up just enough to fit in.)
Then again, it also doesn’t share too much with “The Panic in Needle Park,” its most obvious ancestor. That film featured junkies, a pre-“Godfather” Al Pacino most prominent among them, eking by near the same patch of the Upper West Side the characters in “Heaven Knows What” have claimed as their own. That film tended towards the grim, as does “Heaven Knows What,” though only at times. The Safdies, for the most part, stay away from fireworks, capturing addiction as a way of life, not as a way definitely towards death. It’s the rare drug movie that makes the life look attractive or hellish but simply shows it.