Heaven Knows What Dir. Joshua Safdie, Ben Safdie

[RADiUS-TWC; 2014]

Styles: Drug, Urban Grit, Cassavesque
Others: Basketball Diaries, Uncertain Terms, A Woman under the Influence

Sean Price Williams is about the most gifted DP around these days, and his work on Heaven Knows What is a thing to behold — both loose and precise, and always inventive without being showy. He does a lot of documentary-style shooting on the streets of New York City, then shifts gears to go gliding around on a dolly in a hospital in the nimbly choreographed opening credits sequence. Later in the film he frames lead character Harley in a surreal, cartoonish ocean of squiggly-patterned bus upholstery when she boards a Greyhound, creating a sense of a displaced, childlike world. Paired with Isao Tomita’s retro electronic score (of Debussy compositions, apparently), his work has the lived-in feel and surprising details of an old pair of 70s designer jeans.

Directors Joshua and Ben Safdie find fresh and interesting textures to the life of a trio of contemporary NYC junkies: the highs measured in baggies, the lingo, the means of survival. The story revolves around Harley’s desperate attempts to be with Ilya, her relationship of convenience with fellow junkie Mike, and the daily hustle to score and to get a place to crash. A unique quality of the film is how it shows junkie lives littered with bourgeois signifiers. Mike steals some stuff from a bag and Harley’s super excited to find a Banana Republic gift card in there. They go out on the street to beg for money and subway swipes, but they have working cell phones.

The film was famously inspired by the real life story of lead actress Arielle Holmes, but on a character level it doesn’t have much resonance. Ilya, as played by Caleb Landry Jones, is a bit of a cliché, cool to look at but emotionally absent to the point that it’s hard to understand how Harley could feel a connection to him. Holmes’s Harley is similarly charmless; her hysterical suicide attempt at the beginning of the film is certainly dramatic, but ultimately it’s feels like teenage emotionalism; there’s no real vulnerability, it feels like acting out for acting out’s sake. It’s like a life and death situation with nothing meaningful at stake.

Through most of the film Harley’s either acting aloof, languidly rolling her eyes, or getting into angry confrontations that often get stalled in a loop of Meisner class back-and-forth. The dialog seems to be largely improv, and frankly there’s just too much talking; the performers tend to declare their intentions when a look or a silence would be more meaningful and plausible. There’s a point where a long monologue by Mike fades into Tomita’s score and it feels like the directors are (rightly) apologizing.

The Safdies, who used to go by Josh and Bennie, have lost their characteristic layer of bemusement and absurdity here, possibly out of respect for Holmes, who’s sharing her personal story. It’s too bad, because her narcissistic character is begging to be challenged in some way. It’s as if the filmmakers fell into a codependent relationship with her, losing some of their own identity in the process. They do bring in a couple of weirdo characters — a seemingly religious Jewish guy who congratulates Harley on being high and an older woman who lets Harley stay at her place for a few bucks and keeps offering her a dreamcatcher — but they’re kind of caricaturized, extraneous foils to Harley’s personal cool.

There’s a banality to Harley’s existence, an emptiness of intention, a sense of someone who comes from privilege somehow choosing oblivion and survival or getting lost in it. In that sense the film suggests the addict’s sense of entitlement, the way addiction panders to the ego, but ultimately it’s neither a clear-eyed view of the addict nor a story told from the addict’s point of view. It’s a film that deals mainly in textures and surfaces; it’s quite cool to look at, but it lacks the kind of deeper understanding of its subject that would make its stylish exterior feel true to life and organic.

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