In Reviews

June 4th, 2015




Roger Ebert always talked about how, and I am paraphrasing, “movies had an ability to submerge us into a different world. It is an escape of the mind, where all our realities are forgotten for an hour and thirty minutes, as we watch events unfold on screen.” Director Ben and Joshua Sadfie’s newest independent film, Heaven Knows What will submerge its audiences into a world they never want to be a part of, the world of the homeless and heroin addicted Harley (Arielle Holmes), along with her junkie boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). It is an all too-real affair, where the material is inspired from Holmes’ own memoir and experiences on the streets of New York’s Upper West Side. If Heaven Knows What does one thing well, and it does many, it is that it portrays the subculture of homeless addicts, who unfortunately live amongst us on our city streets. 

The opening scene is absolute madness, as Harley is seen in a city library, begging to Ilya that he forgive her or she will slit her wrists. It is painfully disturbing to see, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship where one partner’s motivation is based on threats of pain in order to show love, knows that this is crazy. “I swear to God I’ll do it Ilya.” Her threats turn out to be real, as she is immediately rushed to an emergency room, then a psych ward, before returning to the streets. The direction by the Safdie brothers looks like hidden cameras on the streets without being a documentary. Long shots of Harley working the people who could “spare some change” will remind you of the person that asked you on State Street this morning. 

It is not just Ilya (Landry Jones, who is the only recognizable face with appearances in films like- X-Men: First Class) who is involved in Harley’s circle. She is surrounded by the entire pack of junkies that exist in her homeless clique. Time is spent walking around Central Park with people that have names like Skully, whose motivation to give Harley a hit is getting a chance with her. Time is spent by Harley sitting outside of liquor stores with a cardboard sign and a cup, and when a passerby offers her $20 dollars, she must ask the kind person to buy her booze because she has not even hit 21 yet. After falling out with Ilya, her next boyfriend Mike (Buddy Duress) is someone Harley is in love with for his connections and her drug of choice. Mike is a fast talker, the classic junkie that believes everything he says is fact. And around the cycle she goes. 

Movies with the topics of drug addiction have of course been done ad nauseum. I am always reminded of movies such as Requiem for a Dream or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, which have shown us the perils of drug use. Just last week, I expressed my appreciation for Collin Schiffli’s film- Animals, which displayed love through addiction. What the Safdie’s have made here is a story of community and survival. The fears of death circle our characters, but the resilience from them is constant. They survive stealing energy shots and sleeping on couches, benches, and in abandoned houses. As all the junkies gather in the park at night, they celebrate on booze and life, like a collection of vampires sucking on the belly of a city. 

Heaven Knows What eventually spirals Harley and Ilya into an ending that may feel unfulfilled, yet on point. Their path to the end goes where the drugs take them, like the wandering dogs that they are. This independent film is not for everyone in fact, the thought of submerging yourself into a life of addiction is not a pleasant one. Even given that, I think Heaven Knows What is as courageous of a film as they come. 

3 Stars

Written By: Leo Brady

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