Homeless heroin addict Harley (Arielle Holmes) is so infatuated with Ilya Leontyev (Caleb Landry Jones, "Antiviral," "Queen and Country") that when he refuses to forgive her she says that she will kill herself. When she returns with razor blades he says he'll watch. But although he calls for help when she goes through with it, Ilya's not one to stick around in "Heaven Knows What."
"Daddy Longlegs" sibling directors Ben and Joshua Safdie (the former also edits, the latter writes) may have one of the greatest origin stories in independent cinema - when they became intrigued by Arielle Holmes in NYC's diamond district, they got her a job on a music video. She never showed up and they traced her to Bellevue. She'd attempted suicide and, having heard her story, they convinced her to write. Her 'Mad Love in New York City,' upon which this film is based, was written on the fly in Apple stores and now she stars as a version of herself.
This film is dedicated 'in loving memory of Ilya Leontyev,' but one would be hard pressed to understand why anyone would be drawn to this abusive loner. Yet the Safdies' film is a compelling watch. Mixing professional actors like Landry Jones (who lived on the streets to prepare for the role) with real street kids like Buddy Duress and shooting close to their subjects from a distance, the brothers have captured the rhythms and routines of life on the streets through the eyes of Arielle, who trades her romanticism for practicality when she leaves Bellevue, at least for a time, partnering with the drug dealer, Mike (Duress), who genuinely wants to protect her.
"Heaven Knows What" doesn't follow a traditional narrative, beginning as it does in the midst of a fight and ending in the midst of a conversation. Instead we watch a far flung community that keeps tabs on each other, for better or ill, focused on that day's existence. When Arielle hooks up with Mike, he gives her drugs, a cell phone and brings her to Diana, an older woman who rents sleeping space in her apartment for $15/night, only requesting that Arielle contribute money to this arrangement. Various configurations of this group crop up at regular meeting spots, like White Castle where Mike responds to a request to leave by flinging money in the air - sliders for all! But Ilya's shadow continues to loom and when he threatens to kill Mike, we can almost sense Arielle's pulse quickening, her loyalties divided. When she gives way to her worst impulses one last time, Ilya once again proves exasperatingly unreliable, unlovable by everyone by her.
This docudrama will make you feel like you're living amongst this society, one so often invisible as we walk right by it. The Safdies deliver it in all its everyday dramas. Duress's Mike gives an ongoing monologue of life's annoying disappointments. A person's disappearance begins an intense investigation. Passive begging ('spanging' in street terminology) elicits bizarre generosity, a Hasidic man exulting in Arielle's high. Cinematography by Sean Price Williams ("Listen Up Philip") is extraordinary, overhead shots of junkies walking along a tony NYC street or a tight shot in a corner of a public library creating a specific, insular world within a diverse and distinctive city, the film's sci-fi-ish synth score adding to the effect.
The professional actor blends right into the scene - it's Holmes who draws our eye, a woman who could be walking a runway in different circumstances - and Duress whom we listen to, his indignation over a customer's dishonesty an example of a moral compass in electrical chaos.
Robin gives "Heaven Knows What" a B.
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