Heaven Knows What is the story of a girl named Harley, played by Arielle Holmes. Harley has two great loves in her life. The first is a boy named Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who is manipulative, possessive, and selfish. Her second great love is heroin, which of course comes with its own set of problems. All of this is complicated by the fact that she’s homeless, living on the streets of New York City, surviving of the generosity of friends and complete strangers. Things become even worse when Ilya demands that Harley prove her love for him, specifically by killing herself.
Quite literally acting as a day in the life of a homeless drug addict, Heaven Knows What is actually based upon an autobiographical memoir by Arielle Holmes herself. I’m not usually into the ‘based on a true story’ movies because they tend to only be ‘true’ in the very loosest sense of the word since they alter the story to be more drama- and movie-friendly. But Heaven Knows What is different, first off because, as far as my own research into Arielle Holmes can discern, is almost completely true. When co-director Josh Safdie meet Holmes while doing research for another film in New York City, she actually was a homeless drug addict, and everything portrayed in the movie- including her suicide attempt- did indeed happen to her. Even all her friends in the movie are portrayed by her real-life homeless friends she knew during this time, much like City of God. The only exception is Ilya, who is played by a professional actor, because the real-life Ilya was too unstable. In fact, a couple of months ago, the real Ilya died from a drug overdose.
The other thing that sets this movie apart from the crowd is the plain, matter-of-fact way it is told. The story of Heaven Knows What sounds like the perfect Oscar Bait movie; it’s depressing, drugs and suicide are involved, and the Safdie Brothers could have easily written in a happy ending showing Arielle Holmes’ transformation from street kid into an up and coming indie film actress. But in fact, the film is told in an extremely conventional manner, very plainly without overly dramatizing the things that Harley goes through. Yet it doesn’t minimize them either; it is simply her life, presented without comment and without judgment.
All of this is fascinating, and yet the bottom line is that despite its fascinating story and unique narrative style, Heaven Knows What is not at all an enjoyable film to watch. It’s a bit like what I imagine Trainspotting would be like if you stripped away all of that film’s dark comedy. So if you want to see a unique and unconventional film about street kids featuring drug addiction, abusive relationships, and suicide, this is the film for you. I just hope that appeals more to you than it did to me.