Film

'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.


Heaven Knows What

Director: Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Necro, Eleonore Hendricks
Rated: R
Studio: Radius-TWC
Year: 2014
US date: 2015-05-29 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image