“To the mean gray streets of Manhattan and Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, which is convincing as hell,” writes Tom Christie at Thompson on Hollywood. “That is in part because it is based on its star’s own life on the streets: The Safdies are said to have met then-19-year-old homeless addict Arielle Holmes while researching another project, and asking her to write up her story, which included an abusive relationship with a fellow street addict named Ilya. Later, when they decided to film it, they asked Holmes to play herself, which is, A, crazy, and, B, crazy good, because it and she work very well.”
For the National Post, Calum Marsh talks with the Safdies about the film’s making: “‘Sometimes we had to do things 10 or 11 times, and I’d say to her, “We’re not going anywhere until this over,”‘ says Josh. ‘Sometimes she would grow tired; it was really long days and it was freezing outside sometimes. She would be solely on methadone some days because we couldn’t have her shooting up all day. The methadone takes all the color out of your skin, so we had to use all of this makeup.’ They nevertheless had faith, and Holmes ultimately persevered. ‘It was very difficult on her, but she’s very ambitious.'”
The brothers also list five films that influenced Heaven Knows What, and Variety‘s Scott Foundas has spotted one of them, noting that the film “revisits much of the territory mapped by director Jerry Schatzberg in 1971’s stark junkies-in-love drama The Panic in Needle Park, and finds it occupied by a new generation of addict drifter-dreamers spiraling toward oblivion. Far from a conventional ‘drug movie,’ the Safdies’ third narrative feature tackles more overtly dramatic subject matter than the kleptomania romantic comedy The Pleasure of Being Robbed and the seriocomic family chronicle Daddy Longlegs, but with the same sharp sense of anxious characters catching as catch can on the unforgiving city streets.”
“The self-destructive love story between Harley and her immortal beloved (Caleb Landry Jones) is supposedly the film’s centerpiece, but it feels somewhat underdeveloped, not so much in terms of screen time as of emotional probing,” finds Celluloid Liberation Front, writing for Cinema Scope. “The couple’s passion is tormented and dramatic on paper but hardly felt by the spectator.” Still, “Heaven Knows What displays a certain courage in at least trying to tell an old story in a new language—athough it is admittedly difficult to look at the bottom of life from somewhere up above.”
David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter: “Among the film’s most impressive qualities is the Safdie brothers’ boldly textural use of music—predominantly Isao Tomita’s electronica versions of Debussy, but also a little Tangerine Dream and James Dashow as well as some hardstyle and black metal. The other standout element is Sean Price Williams‘s woozy cinematography, which hugs in close to the characters or sits back from a detached point of view, often shooting them in a bleached haze of light.”
“At one point, Harley and one of her compatriots press a heap of stolen mail against subway vents to avoid losing them in the wind of a passing train. It’s a distinctly Safdian moment: awkwardly physical, unexpected, and very New York.” A straight A from Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. And for Ty Landis at Sound on Sight, Heaven Knows What is “a true stunner.”
More interviews with the Safdies: Andrew Barker (Variety) and Tara Karajica (Screen Daily). Heaven Knows What screens next month at the New York Film Festival.
Update, 9/10: Holmes “is a natural camera subject, with an instinctive understanding of how to use her expressive eyes,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “The movie, which spans only a couple of days, amounts to little more than a series of incidents, but each individual scene has a powerful immediacy that makes this sad little world—barely visible amidst the affluence of New York’s Upper West Side—starkly compelling.”
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