Many indie films tackle addiction and strive to capture the desperation behind this taboo subject, and a few do a great job. It wasn’t too long ago that Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) scared the crap out of would-be junkies with hopeless characters and revolutionary camera techniques. Like the psychological drama, Heaven Knows What (2014) follows that genre, balancing a plot of drug addiction, homelessness, and unrequited love based on the true story of the star Arielle Holmes.
Starring a former drug addict is an excellent choice to actually promote the realism of the subject matter. With decisions like that and a generally compelling plot, it’s no wonder that this film has funneled positive critical reviews.
Brother directorial duo Joshua and Ben Safdie take on this drug-fueled picture, with a few other indie pictures under their belt like The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2007), Daddy Longlegs (2009), and Lenny Cooke (2013). Their films range from commissions from large companies to full-length documentaries, but they all share the common theme of being strictly independent. They’ve got a few awards to their name, including the Grand Prix and Best Director award at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Because no one would understand the struggles of the main character, Arielle Holmes, besides Arielle Holmes herself, she takes the starring role of her fictionalized self. Other interesting actors include Buddy Duress (now a Rikers Island inmate), Ron Braunstein (a rapper that goes by “Necro”), and Caleb Landry Jones (who had to make a huge transformation to the heartless heavy metal fan Ilya). Most of the people involved in the production had no prior acting experience, but it didn’t stop them from portraying believable characters – largely because most of them have had similar experiences to their respective characters.
It has a sort of modern spin on the cult classic Panic at Needle Park (1971), except where that was based on a fictionalized novel, this film follows a true story. Like that movie, it shows the harsh realities of drug-addicted life on the streets. It also has a similar almost ‘80s vibe, though both films are significantly far from that decade. Comparisons aside, Heaven Knows What has a fascinating John Carpenter style soundtrack, lending further to the retro feeling.
Based on the short preamble I’ve given, it’s no stretch to say that this movie deals with some fucked up themes and has starkly disturbing scenes. When the opening scenes involve an abusive boyfriend that prompts his girlfriend to commit suicide in front of him, you can tell it’s going to be a rough ride – maybe even go downhill from there. What makes this movie harder to watch on an emotional level is how the characters keep making questionable decisions – cringe-worthy ones sometimes (I mean, for Christ’s sake, WHY does Arielle go back to Ilya?). I suppose that’s what makes it more compelling though.
Filmed both in scenes of vivid lights and bleak washed-out cityscapes, the film is beautiful despite its ugly plot. Throughout, after that harsh opening, it’s mostly a story of desperation and how Arielle tries desperately to get her next high. She finds herself conflicted, whether or not to go back to Ilya, even as he’s slowly being cut out of their circle and whose life is collapsing in ways far worse than hers.
The ending almost comes full-circle though you feel like she’s been granted some kind of freedom or second chance. That really relates to the true story behind the film since after being discovered by the Safdie brothers, Arielle Holmes’ name rose to prominence and she’s getting help for her addiction. It’s a happy ending that happens beyond the big screen, but it’s a happy ending nonetheless and that’s something we can all get behind.