Arielle Holmes is an “electrifying newcomer” as Harley in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, “a tough, lean tale of homeless scag addicts,” writes Melissa Anderson for Artforum. “The film is based on Holmes’s as-yet unpublished book Mad Love in New York City, a chronicle of her teenage vagrancy and obsessive, self-destructive passion for a fellow junkie named Ilya (whose movie incarnation is played by the cadaverous Caleb Landry Jones). Dramatizing incidents from her own extremely recent past, Holmes brings a feral, corrosive energy to each scene, the enormity of her needs—for drugs, for Ilya’s love—made even more terrifyingly incongruous by the fact that they are expressed by such a slight, delicate young woman.”
“Day in, day out, for as long as she’s not distracted by Ilya, Harley ekes out cash,” writes Sarah Salovaara at Filmmaker. “The limitless possibilites of this task, as well as its minutiae, are more or less tailor made for the Safdies’ imagination, which elevate its routine depiction beyond what we may have already seen from the ‘addiction genre.’ Much elbow grease has already been spent wedging Heaven Knows What into this camp (see: The Panic In Needle Park, et al.), but the film also has plenty to say about love.”
At Slant, Kenji Fujishima notes the Sadfdies’ “uncanny ability to evoke a sustained sense of lived-in authenticity through drawn-out dialogue scenes and close-up-heavy camerawork. If nothing else, Heaven Knows What is one of the most harrowing cinematic depictions of drug addiction in recent memory, reliant less on formal gimmickry than on close observation of behavior.”
In the Voice, Danny King notes that Heaven’s been co-written with Frownland director Ronald Bronstein, “who also co-edited Heaven with Benny, [and] was the kinetic star of the Safdies’ autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, which, in its gutsy naturalism, heated domestic quarrels, and furious handheld camerawork, positioned the brothers as heirs to John Cassavetes. But they’ve altered their approach considerably, veering away from material inspired by their own lives.” For Aaron Hillis, Heaven “feels like it was made with unsafe hands, as if every piercing note of atonal electronica and jittery, frame-filling close-up were executed while fiending for the next fix.”
“I’d say that this film is about the difference between belonging to a community and depending on others,” writes Doug Dibbern in the Notebook. “And maybe what the film suggests is that people who live outside of the mainstream necessarily form their own communities that bind themselves together in such a way that the pendulum swings too far to the side of dependence rather than belonging.”
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey finds the Safdies’ “attitude towards their protagonist is refreshing: they’re not gonna make you like her, they’re not going to fix her, and they’re not going to redeem her. It’s rather a hopeless movie, but a refreshingly honest one.”
“The Safdies’ images, by the cinematographer Sean Price Williams, capture her romantic obsession with unflinching roughness and intense tenderness,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody.
“Shot with long lenses that essentially telescope the actors from across the street, the movie visualizes the Upper West Side so claustrophobically that the events barely seem to occur on the same planet as the gentrified city usually depicted on screen,” finds Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “The alien-landscape effect is aided by a relentless, mood-setting electronica score. You would never guess that much of the film is set just blocks from where the festival unspools.”
“You come out of Heaven Knows What feeling as if you’ve finally made it to shore against an overpowering undertow, having left the junkies behind,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “They’ll be back.”
Last week we posted Calum Marsh‘s interview with the Safdies. Stephen Saito‘s spoken with them as well, along with Arielle Holmes; and Dan Sullivan talks with them for Film Comment. Earlier: Reviews out of Venice and Toronto. Meantime, Radius has acquired US rights; Rebecca Ford has details in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 10/21: “To make someone like Harley the subject of the movie without the benefit of a sympathetic backstory to be slowly doled out is to double-dog-dare an audience to care,” writes Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot. Now “Holmes is cleaned up, has professional representation, and is walking the red carpet at Venice. So I ask ya, who’s hustling who? I’m putting a cynical spin on this, but it’s hard not to think about Heaven Knows What in terms of hustle, because that’s what the movie’s all about—about people feeding on other people’s needs to satisfy their own, always testing other people to see what they can pull over on them.” That said: “There is no attempt to disguise the movie-ness of Heaven Knows What.”
Update, 11/16: Jessica Kiang talks with the Safdies for the Playlist.