#NYFF52, Heaven Knows What: Gritty New York Done Right

September 23, 2014 | Rhett Jones

ANIMAL will be bringing you continuing coverage from The New York Film Festival, which runs Sep 26 – Oct 12 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Heaven Knows What plays Thursday, October 2nd at 9:00pm and Wednesday, October 5th at 8:00pm.

Heaven Knows What opens with a young woman begging her boyfriend for forgiveness. At first he won’t even speak to her but when she asks what it would take for him to believe her, he says, “kill yourself.”

Next, we’re with her at the bodega buying razor blades. It takes a bit of time for her to make the suicide attempt that eventually lands her in a mental ward.

Directors Ben and Joshua Safdie do an excellent job of setting their film apart from average “junkie” film cliches. The entire mental ward visit is regulated to one complex, silent, four-and-half minute shot — a small decision that makes a world of difference. They use long lenses, hazy glass filters and close framing, evoking a ’70s style, attempting to put you right into the experience of a street junkie. They use the star’s own stories for the script.

The Safdies discovered Arielle Holmes (Harley) in NYC’s Diamond District. After they discussed an audition for a different film, they learned that she was a homeless addict living on the streets of Chinatown and asked her to write about her experiences. Defending their use of the word “junkie” in the Q&A, they insist that they are still close friends with Holmes and her self-described junkie acquaintances.

Above all, the film is concerned with how a group of gutter punk addicts talk to each other. They are selfish, deluded, erratic and have an odd concept of makeshift family. The characters feel true.

The structure of the film is in repetition, in detailing how a junkie goes about doing what they do — how they buy razor blades, steal stuff to sell, procure their morning wake up shot, find a place to crash or manipulate a friend into loaning them some money.

The biggest impression the film leaves is that you’ve seen a different side of New York, a little of the old New York that is still left. The Safdie brothers find it in between the cracks on the Upper West Side — a choice that gives the film a different look than the more obvious LES or the outer boroughs. There’s still a dangerous, desperate world between the condos and the Starbucks.

There are times that the story feels repetitive, which is a trap that junkie films almost always fall into. But the repetitions build a world where you care for some pretty hideous people. The hideous character of New York City lingers above all.

CHEAT SHEET: If you don’t manage to get tickets to the NYFF and you need to talk about it in conversation, here’s what to say:

— “Wow. Who knew the Upper West Side in 2014 looks scarier than the LES in the ’80s.”
— “That boyfriend dude looks just like Tommy Wiseau in The Room.”