Movie Review: “Heaven Knows What”

2stars1The novelty of having a real homeless junkie play a version of herself drives “Heaven Knows What,” a gritty hand-held character portrait of heroin addict life in New York today.
The unblinking character study, shot in muted shades of grey, stars recovering addict Arrielle Holmes and is based on her memoir. Thanks to its subject and the contributions of electronic music artist Tomita to the film’s score, it plays like an awful flashback to an earlier age.
But kids these days, it’s not just vinyl that they’ve brought back. Heroin is in. Again. And here’s an indie-film era look at what their lives are like.
Harley (Holmes) has two great loves. One is Ilya (the actor Caleb Landry Jones). The other is heroin. Neither treats her with a hint of humanity.
Ilya is a cruel, selfish and childish junkie, laughing as he orders her to buy razor blades and open her veins.
“If you love me, you would’ve killed yourself by now.”
Harley writes him a love letter, gets the razor blades and tries to earn his attention long enough to prove herself to him.
“I’m about to die right now, and I really want you to BE there.”
She survives, endures the hospital and a little rehab. But on getting out, Ilya wants nothing to do with her. She clings to their skinny braggart-bully of a dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress). They drift from fast food joints where they shoot up in the restrooms, to snowy Central Park, to subway stations and street corners, begging for change or subway passes, stealing and living only for their next fix.
Sibling filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie, working from a script based on Holmes’ “Mad Love in New York City,” capture a colorful street life of sleepy-eyed stoners, drunks and junkies, prattling on about fights they’ve had, cops they’ve dodged and TV’s “Cosmos.”
Random? That’s the very definition of the lifestyle. Harley, heroin thin, blond and about 20, doesn’t plan for the future, be it a year from now or an hour from now.
“I need TWO to get straight,” she begs Mike. Any money she picks up is spent in an instant. Cheap booze, Dr. Pepper and DayQuil keep her and her whole crowd going between fixes. Food never seems to enter into it.
And truth be told, that’s about it. The filmmakers have contented themselves with the barest bones of a story, relying on local color and the nuts and bolts of being homeless and addicted in New York to carry the film.
But it doesn’t. The far superior “Animals” (released last month) captured a love story with an arc, a hazy fantasy life and the slim hope of living through the experience of heroin addiction — with real actors, and without the novelty of street people filling many of the roles.
See “Animals” and “Heaven Knows What”plays like more of a gritty snapshot than a movie.


MPAA Rating: R for drug use throughout, pervasive language, disturbing and violent images, sexuality, and graphic nudity

Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress
Credits: Directed by Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, script by Ronald Bronstein and Joshua Safdie, based on a book by Arielle Holmes. A Radius/TWC release


Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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