‘Heaven Knows What’ Offers Little Hope to an Invisible Subculture

Despite some stylistic flourishes, this film's portrayal of the harsh world of drug addiction could make viewers "just say no" to Heaven Knows What.

A lot has changed in Manhattan since the “Needle Park” days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but as Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What (2015) shows, to this day the streets are still filled with drug addicts searching for their next fix. Harley (Arielle Holmes) and her homeless friends wander the Upper West Side with nothing to do and nowhere to go. To pass the time, and perhaps to escape their humdrum lives, they get high.

Based on Holmes’ soon-to-be-published memoir Mad Love in New York City, Heaven Knows What shines a light on a forgotten subculture in 21st century urban America. Like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Jerry Schatzberg’s gritty drama about heroin addicts who hang out in Sherman Square, the film focuses on the negative impact of drug culture on youth culture. The difference, however, is that the addicts in The Panic in Needle Park can cobble together a few bucks to rent an apartment. After 40 years of gentrification, no such luck exists for the addicts in Heaven Knows What, who instead sleep in Central Park.

A deeply passionate young woman, Harley loves two things. The first is heroin, and the second is Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), the young man who most likely got her hooked on heroin. It’s heartbreaking to watch Harley destroy her life for things that offer her nothing substantial in return. Heaven Knows What isn’t the first film to connect the self-destruction of drug addiction to the self-destruction of all-consuming love, but it’s one of the more persuasive.

Heaven Knows What doesn’t entertain, and it isn’t easy to enjoy. The subject matter is tough, and the Safdies’ treatment of the subject matter doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Life is hard for addicts, and trying to survive in a society that wants nothing to do with you isn’t fun.

The film’s “don’t do drugs, kids” message isn’t new, but that’s the point. For as long young people have been told not to try drugs, young people have tried drugs. In each generation, a young person naively thinks that he or she will be the one who can dabble for fun, and every time, that young person’s life is destroyed by paralyzing addiction. The film also condemns a major industrialized city that would allow its young people to slip through the cracks so easily. In numerous scenes, Harley begs to break free, and all of the strangers who surround her refuse to help. They pass by her as if she doesn’t exist, and anyone who’s ever lived in a major metropolis will confirm that this is a common occurrence. What are young people like Harley expected to do if the average passerby doesn’t give a damn about their despair?

If anyone can honestly represent Harley’s situation, surely it’s the actress who lived it. Harley is obnoxious and selfish, and we’re never quite sure if she was always this way, or if drugs brought out the worst in her. Holmes capitalizes on this ambiguity and delivers a masterfully naturalistic performance. Holmes bears witness to the nameless young people like herself who’ve been cast out of society, who sleep on the streets and wonder why they live in such a cruel world.

Like the Safdies’ mumblecore hit Daddy Longlegs (2009), Heaven Knows What is shot like a documentary. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams uses 16mm film to capture the lives of these characters, and there’s a grittiness that cannot be denied. However, there are also occasional stylistic flourishes that create some distance, such as the synth score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink, and the colorful tints that fill the frame. These artistic touches ultimately distract from the film’s realism.

The special features on the Blu-ray aren’t worth getting excited about. There are a few deleted scenes, a meandering 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and a complimentary music video of the song “I Need a Minute” by Ariel Pink. These bonus features fail to offer any useful insights about the film.

Heaven Knows What recalls countless drug films that came before. There have been so many, in fact, that it’s difficult for filmmakers to breathe new life into the genre. We’ve seen them all, from Darren Aronofsky’s hyper-stylized Requiem for a Dream (2000), to Pedro Costa’s ultra-realistic In Vanda’s Room (2000). After a while, experienced moviegoers know what to expect. Despite the Safdies’ commitment to the material and Holmes’ captivating presence, Heaven Knows What is just another dreary film about drug addiction.

RATING 5 / 10
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