Harley is a homeless teenage heroine addict living in New York City desperately trying to navigate the grim ghettos of dealers and users. She survives by panhandling and backstabbing friends for her drugs, all the while flirting with her on-again-off-again psychotic boyfriend, Ilya, and the idea of suicide.
This film is BLEAK.
Inspired by the unpublished memoirs of lead actress, Arielle Holmes, “Heaven Knows What” is the story of Harley, a homeless heroine addict living in New York City. One of the most interesting tidbits about this movie is the fact that the lead actress is portraying a fictionalized version of herself. Discovered while she was panhandling on the streets, Arielle Holmes was encouraged by directors Josh and Benny Safdie to write a memoir; “Heaven” is the product of her memoirs and some fictional happenings added by the Safdie brothers. “Heaven” was Arielle Holmes’s first credit as an actress.
The film starts with Harley (Arielle Holmes, “American Honey”) as she sits in a library, writing a suicide note to her boyfriend. She’s made a mistake, and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”) is angry with her. She believes the only way to redeem herself is through death. She writes a suicide note, telling Ilya that him she loves him, and he gives her reason for living. She delivers the letter to Ilya and he, without reading it, tears it to shreds and lets it fall to his feet. Ilya tells Harley to prove that she loves him, so she buys razors and, with his prompting, she slits her wrists in front of him.
From there, Harley is taken to a hospital. When she gets out, she goes to score drugs without a second thought. Despite the warning of her friend, Skulky (Ron Braunstein, “Good Time”), Harley meets up with her dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress, “Good Time”). After spending the night with Mike, Harley begins living with him, panhandling for money to buy food, drugs and alcohol.
This film is a remarkably harrowing character study. Most of the time, the plot takes a back seat- it doesn’t go much further than Harley trying to get money or drugs- but the plot is not the thing that drives this story; what drives the story is the tumultuous, destructive chemistry between characters. This film gives us a passenger car filled with characters to care about, and all of them are barreling blindly towards an inevitable train wreck, and honestly, it’s impossible to look away.
Arielle does an amazing job portraying Harley, which makes sense considering the character is based on her. As she wanders through the streets, bleary-eyed and dejected, continuously making decisions that will sink her further into her habit and further into trouble, we can’t help but feel sorry for her. She inspires so much sympathy, but at the same time so much frustration. You want to help her, you want her to help herself, but time after time she disappoints and fails.
But she keeps trying. She is determined. And though her determination is misplaced- directed towards finding enough drugs to keep her from getting sick- we still can't help but hope she does the right thing next time. She is such a beautifully broken, schismatic character. I found myself drawing many comparisons between Harley and Rodion Raskolnikov. She is a slave to her heroine as Rodya was a slave to liquor; both characters are poor but do nothing to rectify their situations, despite many opportunities to do so; both do things that cause themselves and others harm without thinking them through, turning to violence on impulse, lashing out at those who help them; both characters are reckless and put themselves at great risk for minimal gain.
I suppose many people could look at this movie and see only sadness, only darkness. It is a sad story, that much is true, but it’s important to look beyond the circumstances in which the character find themselves, to try and find some semblance of meaning, some light in all this. Harley is always looking for redemption no matter where she goes, she’s just always looking in the wrong places; but she is at heart, despite all her flaws, a good person.
This is one of the reasons why this movie is so good: because it convinces you to root for a character so deeply flawed, so horribly broken, that it gets you to want to believe in some sort of redemption for her. I found there is so much beauty in this film. Down among the broken hearts, slit wrists, needle-pierced veins, and drug-riddled minds- in the trash-filled gutters of our society, people can still find love; it might not be whole or perfect, but they can still find it.
Arielle Holmes is amazing as Harley, Caleb Landry Jones is fantastic as Iyla, and Buddy Duress is great as Mike. None of the actors here (save Caleb) have big credits, but most of them really hold their own on screen.
But the real talent here is behind the camera, with the writing and directing. The Safdie brothers are incredible. Though the story draws on the almost meditative state in which Harley lives her life, the direction is anything but meditative. Colors are at times vibrant and rich, and other times dull and drab (much like the schismatic nature of Harley and the high and withdrawal of her drug). Some scenes linger, while others are quick and intense. The brothers show an incredible amount of range in such a short time frame, something they do again in “Good Time”. Their work will be something to watch for; though their next film, “Uncut Gems”, which has Jonah Hill attached to star, still has no release date.
The content matter is very disturbing; the whole story focuses on a teenage girl’s addiction and the addictions of those around her. You really have to look through the darkness to see the light in this film; but the light is there, if you search for it, and it is beautiful.
This is a great movie, but it is not for everyone. There are plenty of trigger warnings: drugs, violence, domestic abuse. But it's important to remember that this stuff really does happen, and there are teens that are going through what Harley went through right now. So often we get caught up in the comfortable bubbles of our own world and forget how much pain some people experience every day. I believe if you can look at this movie for what it is, not a picture of a good, noble person, but a portrait of a broken person searching for redemption, then this film is an incredible odyssey to experience.
Closing thought: I don’t know where Arielle is now, but I pray that wherever she is, she’s well. After completing her work on this film, Arielle asked the Safdie brothers to help her in recovery, and they brought her to a treatment facility in Florida. She has since has been in two other films: “American Honey”, and “2037: Winter’s Dream”, but her IMDb page shows no upcoming projects.
This film was dedicated to Ilya, Arielle’s real life boyfriend, who died of a heroin overdose in 2015.
Review Written By: