Heaven Knows What




A vivid journey into the underbelly of today’s New York City.


Heaven Knows What


Given the nature of the subject-matter this is not a film for everybody, but it is an extraordinary piece of work in which style and content are as one. That is because for the most part the aim is less to tell a story than to immerse the viewer in a life-style. In particular it invites us to share the experiences of Arielle Holmes’s Harley, a character closely related to Holmes herself. Heaven Knows What was made by two brothers, Josh and Benny Safdie, who encountered Arielle on the streets of New York, got to know her and encouraged her to write about her life. She did, and the result was the memoir Mad Love in New York City which would become the basis of this movie. However, in the screenplay by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie the central figure has been renamed Harley, so the exact blend of fact and fiction is open to question.


If there is a story here it is that of Harley’s love for Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), both of them living by their wits, essentially homeless and addicted to drugs. It is this way of life that the film seeks to capture and it does so with compelling immediacy using for the purpose much close camera work and editing that insists on making us identify with Arielle. Music that we almost drown in – there’s a remarkable use of synthesizers – adds to the power of a piece which early on has the despicable Ilya fed up with Harley and her threats of suicide and urging her, now that she has purchased razor blades, to get on with it.


But this is not in any case a normal love story since Harley’s devotion to the appalling Ilya plays as an obsessional romantic fantasy which she has embraced in order to be able to believe that there’s some purpose in her life: as such it is part of the film’s low life portrayal and the film never seeks to show Ilya for anything but what he is. In view of that, the film’s memorial dedication at the close may come as a surprise, but Holmes, even though playing some version of herself here, is now due to be seen in a film by Andrea Arnold and she is able to suggest totally Harley’s romantic enthralment to a man who never justifies it. Toward the end, the film moves on from depicting the everyday hell of this life-style to more specifically dramatic events. At that point the stylistic approach remains that of the opening but seems less apposite (we are no longer watching the everyday rendered intense but drama which is on the edge of melodrama). But that is a quibble. For those ready to face a portrayal of life on this level, Heaven Know What doesn’t just deliver, it bombards – and does so without seeming false.  




Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Necro, Eléonore Hendricks, Manny Aguila, Yuri Pleskun, Diana Singh, Benjamin Antoine Hampton.

Dir Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, Pro Oscar Boyson, Sebastian Bear McClard, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, Screenplay Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie from the novel Mad Love in New York City by Arielle Holmes, Ph Sean Price Williams, Pro Des Audrey Turner, Ed Benny Safdie and Bronstein.

Iconoclast/Elara Pictures-Axiom Films International Limited.
95 mins. USA. 2014. Rel: 29 April 2016. Cert. 18