Thursday, October 2, 2014

NYFF Spotlight: Heaven Knows What

I have the distinct pleasure this year of covering a few of the films that are being shown at the New York Film Festival, which takes place September 26th-October 12th.

Heaven Knows What
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Screening October 2 at 9pm and October 5 at 8pm

It’s important that a protagonist in any drama – or film of any kind, for that matter – overcome some sort of obstacle. Starting from a low point makes the achievement of anything all the more attainable, and it also makes the person striving to reach a high point all the more likely to fall and regress afterwards. It’s hard to get worse than being a heroin addict deeply in love with someone who hates you, living on the streets of New York City, and that’s where the bleak and depressing “Heaven Knows What” begins. While it’s certainly possible to sympathize with its main character, Harley, this is not a pleasant or inviting experience.

Harley (Arielle Holmes) seems to live her life only to please Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). When she betrays him by sleeping with another man, he shuns her to the point of extreme agony. She does nothing but try to atone for her sins, and he treats her horribly. When she says that she’ll kill herself as the ultimate expression of repentance, he doesn’t try to stop her, and even refuses to ride in the ambulance with her after she makes the first cut and he decides that she shouldn’t really go. From that point, Harley begins a bold process of partial recovery, still determined not to disappoint the man she loves though he clearly doesn’t reciprocate her feelings.

Harley’s journey is a harrowing and disturbing one, as she spends most of her time on the street. Her habits are enabled by her friend and drug dealer Mike (Buddy Duress), who demands hard work and product movement from her but is often too caught up in his own drug-infused world to follow up on his conversations. Though she gets high on a regular basis, Harley seems remarkably down-to-earth, haunted by her place in life despite her potential for so much more. There are moments of hope in her story, but they’re fleeting and hard to find.

Harley’s story becomes infinitely more impactful when the end credits reveal that the film is based on actress Arielle Holmes’ memoirs. The directors revealed that they met Holmes while she was apprenticing in New York City’s diamond district while still homeless. It’s an enormously interesting and mesmerizing thing to see her portray a version of herself on screen, and Duress mirrors her performance with an equally committed and watchable turn as the very chatty and speech-prone Mike. But the film as a whole is a miserable and difficult thing to endure, not nearly powerful enough to merit its brutal and grim nature.


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