Be it in the 1970’s or in the year 2016, drugs will always be a topical subject to base a film around. Like it or not, the inherent drug culture in modern day society is as prevalent as it was when Jack Nicholson revved his engine in Easy Rider or when Mark Renton dived headfirst without hesitation into the worst toilet in Scotland to retrieve his last suppository. It’s a subject that unfortunately affects a great many people. Some manage to kick the great unyielding monkey on their backs and some, unfortunately, don’t. The stories addicts have to tell are more often than not tragic and Heaven Knows What is no different.
Harley (Arielle Holmes) is a homeless teen not only addicted to heroin but also helplessly and powerfully in love with her on again-off again boyfriend and fellow junkie Ilya (Calb Landry Jones). The two share something of an abusive relationship as IIya seems apathetic to Harley at best and downright cruel at worst. When Harley’s worse fears are confirmed and IIya breaks up with her. She confronts him and begs him to take her back, claiming that she’s willing to do anything to gain his forgiveness even going so far as to say she’ll cut herself. Which IIya actively encourages her to do. This sets up a string of events where Harley and her drug addicted friends as they steal, hustle and do anything they can to feed their addiction.
The unique casting choice for this movie brings something very authentic to an otherwise familiar premise. The story goes that the directors Josh and Benny Safdie they came across Arielle Holmes a young recovering drug addict. After talking with her, they found her story and experiences utterly fascinating and they encouraged her to write her memoirs. They were more than happy to adapt the memoirs into a feature film casting Holmes in the lead role, as a bastardised version of herself.
While some films on the subject tend to romanticise the idea of drugs, Heaven Knows What does anything but. It’s a deeply intimate experience that is unapologetically jarring and pretty damn uncomfortable for the most part. It doesn’t even seem to have that much of a narrative or an attempt to provide anything even remotely resembling a three act structure. In that sense, it could be argued that this is the most realistic film about drugs you’re ever likely to see because life for these addicts isn’t leading to a anything. None of them have any real goals or motivation. Their day-to-day is cyclical in nature and increasingly repetitive. We’re just watching a group of drug addicts stuck in a never ending circle of trying to make money and scoring. The movie doesn’t really have an ending or any sense of anything being solved. The movie just kind of…stops. No ending, nothing achieved. Nothing learned. Just the constant never ending all-consuming pursuit of drugs.
The unsettling feeling this movie brings is only punctuated by the aggressive electronic score that seems to follow the characters around everywhere they go and while some might bemoan the lack of a real plot or cohesive structure, the chances this movie takes is, if nothing else, adventitious especially in regards to Holmes. Her inclusion in the movie might have been risky considering her lack of experience but she looks perfectly natural and comfortable in front of the camera and is impossible to look away from.