That Heaven Knows What will be some viewers’ first exposure to sibling filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie seems almost unfortunate: Some might not make it past this movie’s opening credits, let alone anywhere near the brothers’ back catalog, which teems with eccentric, humane, and hilarious comedies.
Safe to say Heaven Knows What isn’t one of those. Rather, it’s a quasi-documentary, personal-space-invading account of homeless young addicts adrift in the streets of Manhattan, in a place that once was known as Needle Park. Given that this movie often feels like a raw wound that’s been rubbed in gutter grime, some serious cinematic mojo must account for why it’s so great.
You can see it radiating out of star Arielle Holmes’ heavy-lidded, oft-dilated eyes. So can the filmmakers, whose smartest move was discovering and encouraging but not exploiting her. The Heaven Knows What credits cite Holmes’ forthcoming memoir, Mad Love in New York City, which the Safdies encouraged her to write, then shaped into a script with their regular collaborator Ronnie Bronstein, here also one of the film’s editors.
A version of herself, Holmes sets the movie’s mood with the desperate, dismally entrancing procedure of a suicide attempt, egged on by her brutal boyfriend. As played with frightening conviction by Caleb Landry-Jones, the film’s only professional actor, he’s like some grungy wounded subway pigeon that sometimes morphs into a rabid hawk. “Where is this relationship going?” you don’t really need to ask. She winds up bouncing around with a dealer, pseudo-protector, and differently iffy paramour, played by real street-kid Buddy Duress. And he, too, really is something to watch.
How these characters wound up in their grim situation is not fully addressed. They seem like the inheritors, or the results, of some huge un-locatable loss. But their present-tense story is accordingly present and tense, told with alert curiosity and without moralizing or presumption of wisdom. It has the reliable narrative propulsion of needing the next fix, moving swiftly nowhere.
The Safdies don’t force any insights about the dark allure of destructive obsession, be it chemical addiction or (and) dysfunctional romance. There’s nothing too strenuous in cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ telephoto emphasis of urban belittlement, nor in his great array of agile, intimate close-ups. (Nearly as expressive as Holmes’ eyes is the memorable image of her grubby trembling fingers, trying to thread a needle, maybe in vain.) And although the film evokes dystopian science-fiction through the throbbing, otherworldly synths in Isao Tomita’s repurposed-Debussy soundtrack, the overall vibe is bracingly, irrefutably here-and-now.
In that regard, Heaven Knows What is par for the filmmakers’ course. As was already clear in a few earlier features and in the jazzy, loose-limbed shorts these young indie mavericks have cranked out since film school, theirs is a fine and special touch. A gritty junkie love story may seem forbiddingly bleak, but as discovered by the Safdies, it’s a scrappy, singular mix of hustle and hope.