‘Heaven Knows What’ Blurs the Boundaries Between Documentary and Fiction

Heaven Knows What brings fiction and experience together, raising provocative questions about how you believe one and the other.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff to do today.” Harley (Arielle Holmes). She’s in motion, almost dancing on the sidewalk. “I’m gonna go with you,” says Skully (Necro), as she skitters away. The camera follows her, sort of, close on her face, then at a distance, watching her on the sidewalk, not quite able to keep up.

Harley’s motion is the story of Heaven Knows What: her restlessness, her determination, her hope. She’s a 19-year-old addict, and in this moment, she’s just released from Bellevue Hospital following a grisly suicide attempt before the opening credits. Harley makes a show of this attempt, imagining, as she puts it, that slashing her wrist in front of her sometimes boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) will prove to him her love. As her blood spurts and smears her face and his, as he rides with her to the hospital but then refuses to go inside with her, you see that her logic is no logic at all, that he’s a junkie focused on his own next high, that he can’t go inside because going inside means no next high.

At the same time, you see the force and shape of Harley’s logic. The bloody damage she does to herself is vividly representative of her pain, her yearning, and her pulse. Her addiction extends to Ilya, hazy and messy, in that she’s consumed by him, the relationship or the ever-receding idea of it. This addiction, like Harley’s addiction to drugs, provides her days with structure, with purpose, with hour-to-hour direction, that is, to find the next high. Her constant motion reveals and hides such purpose. As Harley rushes from moment to moment, finding or stashing her duffel bag and the please-give-me-money sign she’s handwritten carefully on cardboard, connecting with her dealer, securing a place to shoot up, she’s inside an order, a ritual, an experience. She has a lot of stuff to do every day.

This focus on Harley’s stuff gives Heaven Knows What a particular and profound energy, drawn from its subject. Based on a memoir written by Arielle Holmes, the movie recalls Benny and Josh Safdie’s previous film, the brilliant Lenny Cooke. For that film, the Safdies worked with footage of high school basketball star Cooke, recorded by Adam Shopkorn, then filmed Cooke themselves some 10 years later, connecting the two projects sensationally in a final scene that has the older Cooke talking to the younger one, in one beautifully conceived, CGIed subjective reality.

The structure of Heaven Knows What is more plainly fictional, as Arielle plays Harley and other characters are based on people Arielle knows, played by nonprofessional actors (kids on the street and recovering addicts). But like Lenny Cooke, the new film reveals and also reorganizes its subjects’ experiences, pressing up against the boundaries of documentary and fiction, suggesting their inevitable interconnections in translating life’s essential untidiness. Even so, both films provide orders that the rest of us can comprehend and even feel, orders that are intimate, visceral, and urgent.

In the case of Heaven Knows What, that order is founded on the addict’s consummate isolation, reformed repeatedly by Harley’s connections, with her community with addicts, however false or fleeting these may be. While Ilya disappears for much of the film, she spends time with the dealer Mike (Buddy Duress). Willing to provide her with the next high, he seeks repayment, to finance his own habits and also to connect: so, he helps her fid the tiny bit of high that will make her amenable to sex with him, only to be interrupted by the looming — and I mean looming — figure of Ilya, arriving in the right of the frame, silently, darkly.

As Mike makes his way from the scene, you glimpse his motion, his back retreating to the back of the long handheld shot. He might worry for Harley. Following a fight with Ilya, Mike ends up with his own very bloody injury. Harley and Mike sit together, closely, the camera suggesting their shared understanding. “That kid’s gonna bring you down,” says Mike. “He already has,” comes her answer.

They both know this is true, and you know they know. You’ll never know how she’s come to her romance, to believe what she tells herself, to return to her fiction as a way to define herself. But you don’t need to, because her fiction is familiar, even if her experience seems extreme.

Heaven Knows What brings fiction and experience together. If the formal devices are different from those in Lenny Cooke, the questions raised are equally provocative. These primarily have to do with how outsiders to an experience — especially a difficult one — tend to judge it, and are encouraged to do so by generic formulas in film and other media. If Heaven Knows What doesn’t precisely or fundamentally restructure your thinking of Harley’s life (and her romantic fictions), if it uses handheld, close camerawork or focuses on cooking or scrounging imagery that you might have seen before, it might invite you to think again about how you think about what’s real and what’s fiction.

RATING 8 / 10