Overview: A homeless heroin addict struggles with her love for her destructive boyfriend. RaDIUS-TWC; 2015; Rated R; 94 Minutes.
All That Heaven Allows: I’ve long held that authenticity tends to be a useless metric when it comes to cinema. We all know that film isn’t real, so what’s the use of pretending, right? If nothing else, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What had me thinking differently about that platitude. The film is based on the memoirs of its star, Arielle Holmes, who plays a fictionalized version of herself named Harley, and it contains details so strangely specific that they could only come from real life. One man throws a ninja star made of several welded-together razor blades. Harley is approached by an Orthodox Jew who gives her money with which to get high. Harley and her friend Mike, played by Buddy Duress, steal handfuls of mail and search through them for gift cards. The narrative lives and dies on these sorts of anecdotes, and is largely comprised of them, in fact. Heaven Knows What plays as a grab-bag selection of moments, which could come across as frustrating if not for the talent with which those moments are assembled.
Neon Grey: The cinematography from Sean Price Williams deserves special note. Williams is quickly making a name for himself as a star cinematographer, with superb work in this film and Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth this year, as well as Perry’s previous films Listen Up Philip and The Color Wheel. Here, he shoots with a washed-out palette, and much of the film looks as gray as the skin of some of its subjects. Occasional bursts of color, most notably during the brief scene featured on the film’s poster, liven up the proceedings. Notably, Heaven Knows What never goes too far in either direction. This is not a dour, moralistic tale of addiction’s inevitably ruinous endgame, nor is it a whacked-out tripfest allowing audiences to vicariously experience the absolutely cuh-razy effects of hard drugs. This is as even-keeled a take on the subject as you’re likely to find. The fact that it was based on someone’s real life surely plays an important role in that.
The Star: That someone is Holmes, giving one of the best performances of 2015. What’s most impressive about her work is that she is up against the challenge of having to reproduce her own life in a cinematic context. This is a terribly difficult task for any actor; it requires both letting go of that prior experience while simultaneously inhabiting it. You run the risk of either underplaying it by taking for granted that your performance is accurate to your real reactions, or overplaying it by overcompensating for the former issue. Holmes beautifully rides the middle road. Her work here is intense, off-putting, but immensely sympathetic. I hope she continues to act, because it’s clear that she has a natural talent for it.
Overall: Heaven Knows What is the rare addiction film that doesn’t play like a public service announcement, and Arielle Holmes’ lead performance gives it a powerful momentum.