One of the most vivid portraits of New York City street life in recent memory, Heaven Knows What shows what it means to live in society while being radically apart from it today. Mixing professional actors and real-life homeless drug addicts, the film follows Harley (Arielle Holmes) through her truly mad, doomed love affair with the reprehensible Ilya (Caleb Landry-Jones).
Holmes lived the life of a Manhattan heroin addict and wrote a book about it, which formed the basis of the story. Her workdays consisted of “spanging,” or asking for spare change from passersby, and the film’s sibling directors, Ben and Joshua Safdie, began the project as a documentary of her cohorts’ way of life. Wisely, they realized that they could tell more truth by dramatizing the story than by simply documenting it. The Safdies have found a truly alien world lurking right in plain sight, populated by colorful characters that bourgeois New Yorkers barely even notice as anything more than part of the scenery.
There are obvious comparisons to classic New York City heroin dramas like Panic in Needle Park, but there’s something even more affecting about showing these people living in the cracks and crevices of 2014 New York. In 1970s Manhattan, everything had a menacing griminess to it. Today, these desperate, hopeless drug addicts flit around the brightly lit corporate chain stores, such as Duane Reade, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts, that dominate seemingly every other corner. Contemporary Manhattan life makes everyone look like some kind of corporate drone, bathing us all in its soulless fluorescent lights, and Harley and her ilk are jarring, stark beacons of otherness.
Heaven Knows What also stands head and shoulders above perhaps the standard-bearer of modern drug culture cinema, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. That film uglied-up physically perfect actors Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto and featured every film school editing trick in the book. Heaven Knows What, though, has the subdued restraint of a work of art confident in the truth it is telling.
Harley has an irrational but overpowering devotion to Ilya, who delights in imparting as much psychological and emotional damage on her as he can. Landry-Jones, a veteran of big-budget Hollywood films (X-Men: First Class), is uncomfortably good as Ilya, transforming completely into the rawest, most unpredictable and unnerving of any of the actual street people with whom he shares the screen.
Harley’s version of getting on the right track is pairing up with the comparatively responsible and reasonable Mike (Buddy Duress). Mike, a fellow heroin addict and homeless spanger, is not as darkly charismatic or dangerously exciting as Ilya, but he is supportive and kind. Buddy Duress, currently residing in Rikers Island for drug-related offenses, is a real-life NYC “street legend” with no prior acting experience, and there isn’t a false moment whenever he’s on screen. Duress was originally slated to appear briefly as a drug dealer, but the Safdies saw something compelling in him and ended up building much of the film’s middle section around his Mike. The entire film has that organic, immediate, improvised feel to it, seamlessly blending documentary reality and dramatized fiction.
Harley and her ilk share every aspect of their lives with their street family, delighting in telling tales of their adventures. People enter and exit their lives without any of the vetting, pretext, or ritual of adding “friends” in the plugged-in life. While the grimy, unhygienic realities of transient life are front and center, there is a kind of dirty freedom in how light their lives are and even a wild grandeur to the immediacy of how they live.
A particular strength of the film is its depiction of how solid the sense of community is among these transients. Despite the desperate, untenable nature of their lives, they are rarely ever completely alone or isolated, as is common in the increasingly digitized life of the average person. They are almost like Shakespearean characters, acting on every impulse, defending their honor, boldly expressing their love, set against the drab scenery of a cityscape peopled with careerists, office drones, and smartphone addicts.
The surprising thing about Heaven Knows What isn’t that these characters living on the absolute fringes of society are depicted with such humanity. It’s that watching them makes us realize how little space for real diversity there is in contemporary life.