By now, you may have heard about Arielle Holmes and her unconventional rise to indie-darling fame in the Safdie brothers drama Heaven Knows What. For those who haven’t, take a seat– things get interesting real quick. As a 19-year-old vagrant junkie, Holmes was spotted on the street by directors Josh and Benny Safdie in New York. Her unique beauty caught their attention, and her story of a failed suicide attempt, psych ward stay, abusive boyfriend, and all around dramatic life gave the brothers an idea. They convinced her to write a memoir of her life, and her writings are the basis for the film Heaven Knows What.
Holmes plays herself under the character Harley, reliving the most traumatic moments of her life. The film begins during a fight between Harley and her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), where she threatens to slit her wrists to prove her love to him. He taunts her, egging her on to just do it. She gives in and, in graphic imagery, slits her wrist. Covered in dirt and blood, she screams in pain. After a hospital visit and temporary psych ward stay, she takes to the streets once again, falling into the same dysfunction she was in when we first met her.
Reminiscent of Larry Clark’s Kids, watching Heaven Knows What will make you uncomfortable at times, but you welcome the discomfort and trust that the directors will guide you through the thick of it relatively unscathed. Unlike straightforward narratives, this film is a unique blend of fiction and raw cinema vérité that is graphic, gritty, and extremely real. Sean Price Williams’s cinematography is lofty and dreamlike, a beautiful juxtaposition to the actual bleak events taking place onscreen.
Reminiscent of Larry Clark’s Kids, watching Heaven Knows What will make you uncomfortable at times, but you welcome the discomfort and trust that the directors will guide you through the thick of it relatively unscathed.
Holmes’ lack of acting experience is a good thing in this case– her ability to conjure up raw emotions that powerful is one of the film’s strongest qualities. The intensity that comes from her tiny frame and strong New Jersey accent has the ability to put you in a trance. Hands down, this is a strong breakout performance, but whether she has any future as an actor aside from playing a junkie remains to be seen.
Enlisting her street kid friends as the supporting cast, the Safdie brothers selected Caleb Landry Jones as the sole professional actor in the film. As Harley’s boyfriend Ilya, Jones immerses himself into the life of a junkie with such a fierce portrayal, he is almost unrecognizable. His relationship with Harley is passionate and raw, a dysfunctional relationship if there ever was one. His previous credits include X-Men: First Class, Antiviral and Contraband, a far cry from his performance here.
My biggest criticism can be said in three words: no plot evolution. The film begins just the same as it ends, Harley has not grown as a person, no arch has been reached, and basically no development has happened. The most interesting part of the film is its backstory, not necessarily the film itself. This slow burn is most likely attributed to its vérité style, but that is no excuse for a dehydrated story. While it is easy to get caught up in the vibe of the film early on, it becomes clear halfway through that nothing has progressed and that lack of progression becomes annoying the second half of the film when the uniqueness spark starts to fade.
This is a film for the cool kids; its premiere in New York saw the likes of Chloe Sevigny, Robert Pattinson, Dree Hemingway, and Greta Gerwig grace the red carpet. It’s one of those films you will feel cool saying you’ve seen, nodding along when the other hipsters in the room sing its praises, and whether or not you actually liked it is irrelevant. While I can’t say I enjoyed the storyline, I was left impressed by Arielle Holmes, her performance and confidence the Safdie brothers had to create such an artistically satisfying film.
Heaven Knows What opens at the Arclight Hollywood this Friday, May 29th.