Just a few weeks after the release of the unforgettable, Chicago-set “Animals,” a cautionary tale about a drug-addicted young couple, “Heaven Knows What” takes us on a similar journey — this time in New York City.
The lead performances in the latter film aren’t on the same level as the acting in “Animals,” but in some ways this is an even more harrowing and shocking work, in part because star Arielle Holmes isn’t an actress who was cast to play a suicidal, heroin-addicted street kid. She’s re-enacting her own story, in a film based on her upcoming book, “Mad Love in New York City.”
Filmmakers Joshua and Ben Safdie were researching another project in New York City when they encountered Holmes, a homeless teenage junkie with a goth-punk look, a gift for storytelling and a self-described addiction to drama. They encouraged Holmes to put her stories in writing — and “Heaven Knows What” is a fictionalized adaptation of Holmes’ writings.
When we first meet Harley (Holmes), she’s literally on the ground, rolling around in the throes of passion with her boyfriend and fellow heroin addict Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones).
The shaky indie-cam photography and the intense close-ups on these two beautifully disheveled misfits are a little irritating and slightly reminiscent of an overwrought fragrance ad — but the tone quickly shifts and intensifies when we cut to a distraught Harley desperately apologizing to Ilya for a transgression (presumably she cheated on him) and threatening to kill herself if that’s what it takes for Ilya to forgive her.
Harley’s a self-destructive mess in dire need of medical and psychological treatment, but thanks in large part to Holmes’ natural, unaffected performance, we can see why she’s something of a star among her equally screwed-up friends on the street. Ilya, on the other hand, is a monster — a brooding, bumbling, abusive and manipulative jerk with no apparent redeeming qualities. Caleb Landry Jones, one of the few professional actors in the cast, doesn’t help matters with an overly affected performance consisting of glowering and more glowering. The Ilya character, though based on a real-life boyfriend of Holmes, is the least interesting figure in the film.
Contrast that with non-actor Buddy Duress’ kinetic work as Mike, an on-again, off-again love interest for Harley who sort of looks out for her, though his main concern every day is buying and selling drugs and getting high. Mike thinks everything that happens to him is a story worth telling — and the way he tells the story, he’s not all wrong.
With ear-splitting, electronic techno music pounding on the soundtrack and hand-held cameras following Harley, Mike, Ilya and their friends as they beg, borrow and steal for the money to pay for the next score, “Heaven Knows What” feels like an authentic, sometimes painfully accurate portrait of life in New York City as experienced by the homeless, ever-hustling teenagers who are at best invisible and at worst a serious nuisance for the residents and tourists who literally step over them while going about their day.
At times this is a beautifully shot film — but the Safdies never glamorize Harley’s world or turn her character into some gloriously tragic heroine. We feel for Harley and we like her, but only a fool would want to spend five seconds in her tattered shoes.