Heaven Knows What, from the New York-based independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, screens tonight and Sunday at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Yesterday, distributor Radius announced its acquisition of the film, for an anticipated spring 2015 theatrical release.
Arielle Holmes plays a homeless heroin addict named Harley in the Safdie brothers’ new feature, but the story she tells is, with some embellishments, her own. This is a risky part—as Cary Grant once said, nothing is harder than playing yourself—but the sheer intensity of Holmess’ raw performance is more Cassavetian than the bustling, hand-held close-ups. Contrary to a sense of unemployed listlessness, Holmes shows just how busy homeless life is: every meal and phone call must first be earned through panhandling, dealing or theft, and Harley must even contend with heightened versions of typical teenage drama, chiefly in the form of her toxic, on-again/off-again relationship with the volatile Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones).
Amazingly, the rest of the film rises to Holmes’ level. Sean Price Williams’s cinematography perfectly captures the look of sunlight on faded, grimy city streets, all pigeon gray and faded brown. You can practically smell the composite odors of metropolis life emanating from the screen. The use of music is also exemplary, with Isao Homita’s digitized Debussy and James Dashaw’s pulsing arpeggios occasionally spiking the film with the same tense mania that Holmes brings to the picture, especially in a bravura Steadicam shot through Bellevue’s psychiatric wing. The filmmakers cite movies such as Panic in Needle Park and Dusty and Sweets McGee as inspirations, but in its careful composition and dignified treatment of its protagonist, the film is closer in spirit to an indie In Vanda’s Room.