Heaven Knows What

Director: Ben & Joshua Safdie (2016)

This raw tale of homeless heroin addicts refuses to offer easy solutions or heavy handed homilies.

It’s a loosely plotted account of dependancy, desperation and destitution, told with a blessed lack of sentiment or backstory. Events are given an immediacy through cold location work, shot guerrilla-style with handheld cameras.

New York is presented as an overcrowded, dirty, concrete conurbation where the state uses medicine to control the population. The internet exists but technology intermittently fails.

Adding an astonishing synth soundtrack to the opening scenes of dystopia and isolation, it feels like a 1970s sci-fi prophesy of the 21st century. And it’s set in the present day.

Framing the drama in this way affords us a degree of separation from events, necessary for us to endure watching them.

Based on her own memoir of life on New York streets, Arielle Holmes is compellingly aggressive and agitated performance as Harley.

She rebounds between sadistic addict Ilya and drug dealer Mike, leading to a running battle between the abusive pair. Caleb Landry Jones and Buddy Duress are grubbily convincing.

Littered among the mental illness, overdoses, shoplifting, fighting and begging are small random acts of kindness. They fuel a shambling camaraderie among the down and very nearly outs.

What seems to be dangerous, threatening and unhinged behaviour to bystanders, we recognise as being an understandable reaction to Harley’s extreme circumstance and limited options.

Heaven knows how she survived, not all her acquaintances are so fortunate.

 

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