By Gary Murray

Starring Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry-Jones and Buddy Duress

Written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Running time 94 min

MPAA Rating (Not Rated but R for language and drug use)

Selig Film Rating: Get out the torches!


There have been many drug use flicks over the years.  Some have been powerful such as The Man with the Golden Arm but most are exploitative in nature being more scandalous than serious.  The newest to take on this idea is the latest low-budget offering from the NYC team behind Lenny Cooke and The Black Balloon.  They are Josh and Benny Safdie and their new release is Heaven Knows What.

The story is of Harley (Arielle Holmes).  As this depressing little flick opens, she is yelling at her boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry-Jones) about her committing suicide.  Instead of trying to talk her out of it, he is yelling at her to do it.  When she finally does the deed, Ilya is fascinated by the blood and mayhem.  Then the ambulance is called.

She is locked up and under observation.  It is time for her to re-evaluate her life.  Basically, she is a junkie and is living on the street.  Her job is to beg for money.  With this money, she’s able to buy more drugs. 

Her life is populated by other street people of the Manhattan drug scene.  They are all just looking for the next score and almost looking out for one another.  One of the main guys who watch Harley is Mike (Buddy Duress).  He is a drug dealer but he also seems to care for Harley.

The film is not so much about junkies as it is about abusive relationships.  Harley knows that Ilya is no good for her, just as she knows that heroin is no good for her.  The problem is that she cannot stay away from either one.  She is just as addicted to the man as she is to the junk and needs both in her life. 

It is a raw existence that rings truer than many ‘after school specials’ but is still a hard film to watch.  Time and time again, I found myself turning away from the action.  This is not a work for the easily upset.

My biggest problem with Heaven Knows What was in the telling of the story.  The camera meandered around, never really sure about where to focus.  It was past just bouncing, it was off its mount.  The directing brothers were trying to get across the idea of lost individuals by using lost camera settings.  It was something that was too artsy for its own good. 

The other problem is with a screenplay that didn’t have much of a focus.  Even in a story about junkies, there can be clarity of thought.  Finally, there was not much to be interested in with the major characters.  I was not as compelled by them as I felt sorry for them.  They are not sympathetic characters but characters of their own demise. 

As much as I was repulsed by the screenplay and the characters, the actors did give compelling performances.  Arielle Holmes is a non-actor who gives the performance of a lifetime with Harley.  It is a raw experience down the line, the kind of acting job that makes a career.

Caleb Landry-Jones has been in such hits as X Men-First Class, Contraband and Antiviral.  But, this is a role that should set him apart from his young thespian brood.  There is this eerie, other-world experience that the young actor brings to the role which makes it as upsetting as it is compelling.

While I can appreciate the acting, I hated just about every frame of Heaven Knows What and would never want to experience it again.  This is just not a film for me. 

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