“Strength through Partnership.”
The Safdie brothers, responsible for films such as THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED, DADDY LONGLEGS, and LENNY COOKE, released their fourth feature HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT in 2014. The phrase embroidered on the vest that would become the primary costume worn by the ranting, raving heroin dealer Mike (Buddy Duress) must have made them giddy like school children.
Based on the yet-to-be-published autobiography “Mad Love in New York City” by the film’s lead actress Arielle Holmes, HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is an unusual piece when it comes to the line between narrative and memoir. Holmes plays Harley, a slightly fictionalized version of herself, as she traverses New York’s community of homeless teenage addicts. She struggles to win the affection her abusive, black metal boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), with whom she is hopelessly in love.
That the film exists at all is something of an accident. Joshua was researching for an unrelated film project he intended to shoot in New York City’s Diamond District. Struck by her appearance, Safdie stopped Holmes as she was entering the subway and told him he was researching a movie. They got to talking, and Holmes soon began opening up about her life as a homeless dominatrix and her destructive, heroin-fueled relationship with Ilya. The Safdies quickly put their Diamond District film on the side. Joshua encouraged Holmes to write her story down, which she did by going to the Apple store daily to use their computers. Safdie paid her for each set of pages she delivered to him and soon set to adapting them into a screenplay.
Holmes agreed to reenact some of the most troubling moments of her life, a device that puts the Safdies in the same park as Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbef. Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP and Makhmalbef’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, both starring non-actors reenacting formative scenes from their lives, still stand as landmarks of postmodern cinema today.
While the subject matter may be different, the experience of watching HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT with the knowledge of Holme’s life invokes a lot of the same feelings as watching CLOSE-UP. We’re awed by the actors’ abilities to open up and reveal their most embarrassing, traumatic experiences with grace and skill. Holmes’ performance provides an authenticity that can’t be found in many other films. Even other great films about addiction starring actual addicts, like Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, do not cut as raw and painfully as Holmes does here.
In an interview with Vice Joshua Safdie said “I read about how [Holmes] hustled someone off the street, pretending to be someone that she wasn’t. She was an actress. I mean, a lot of people from the street are usually great actors because they have to act.” And it’s not just Holmes, but nearly every main actor, with the exception of Caleb Landry Jones, is an unprofessional from the streets. And so, Holmes bares her soul while the rest of the cast postures and plays it up because that’s how they survive.
One of these street kids turned actors is Buddy Duress, whose character Mike is volatile and explosive. He welcomes Harley under his wing, offering her shelter and drugs. But he will just as quickly turn on her, screaming and raving as soon as his fragile, drug-addled ego is questioned. We never know if he has it in him to turn physically violent or if it’s all bark and no bite. He’s abusive, but Harley stays with him because he knows the places to sleep and he has a steady flow of heroin. That the phrase “Strength Through Partnership,” appears on his jacket underlines how the relationship between him and Harley is essential to their survival.
When you’re begging for money daily and desperately searching for a semblance of security, alliances are what matter. People may be willing to use, abuse, and abandon you, but you need them and they need you. There’s a dysfunctional unity amongst all of these kids. “Strength Through Partnership” is a means of survival. It’s a thesis.
Kiarostami often cuts to his camera crew to remind his audience they are watching a film. While much of HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT can be considered a docudrama, the Safdies frequently indulge in heavy stylization and the occasional dose of surrealism. Its origins are postmodern but the film’s ambitions are dramatic. They utilize hazy editing, vibrant lighting, a spacey score, and the occasional magical aside. But the reality of these actors lived experiences shines through it all and is what makes it feel authentic. The Safdies have constructed a reenactment, but it seems so real so that by the end it’s as if we just watched a documentary.
In HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, the Safdies have crafted one of the year’s most raw and soulful films, perhaps the best in its genre since THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK. It is through its stylization that we’re able to see the agonizing truth about life for these addicts. By dousing the scene in vibrant purple light or an Ariel Pink synth score, by slowing down time and drifting into a haze, the sadness and the horror of Arielle Holmes past bubbles to the top.