“Would you forgive me if I die?”
I feel like I’m supposed to like Heaven Knows What because it’s being marketed as “authentic,” “raw,” and “gritty.” It also has the safety net of being inspired by true events (the film is based on the true story of lead actress Arielle Holmes’ time as a heroine addict).
But this movie is incredibly grueling (in the worst way possible) and, even worse, it’s painfully cliché. As a film critic in 2015 it’s pretty cliché to use the term “cliché” in order to describe a movie but the Safdie brothers (Daddy Long Legs and The Pleasure Of Being Robbed) have left me no other choice.
Before we go any further I’d like it to be known that my issue here is with the execution of the movie and not the actual subject matter. I have more than enough sympathy for drug addicts. Personally, I think this would have been better off as a documentary, or just let it stand alone as the memoirs it was based off of. So while I haven’t lived the life of an addict I still know when a movie is unsuccessful and that’s kind of the case here–I’m really not exaggerating when I say this movie does come off like an unpolished student film exercise that had no business being feature length. If you’ve read any of the early reviews on Heaven Knows What coming out of Venice then you know it’s been compared to everything from Panic In Needle Park to Requiem For A Dream. I get that on some level. All three films focus on heroin addiction between young couples in an unflinching way. But in my opinion, Heaven Knows What is the product of wanting to emulate Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho after watching those movies one too many times. And if that’s not the case, it’s an attempt at trying to revive the Dogma 95 movement after over a decade when people stopped caring about the Danish-based film movement.
After a suicide attempt, encouraged by her abusive drug-addicted boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), and a short stint at Bellevue Hospital, Harley (Arielle Holmes) continues down a dangerous path until she’s forced to reevaluate and ultimately change her life.
Heaven Knows What doesn’t try to sensationalize or glorify drug addiction in any way like so many other films have accidentally done in the past. The Safdie brothers don’t shy away from the dirty fingernails, gross smells, piss-filled staircases and the noisiness of New York City, so their heart was in the right place (the opening credit sequence was quite uncomfortable/off-putting in a good way). Their use of music and audio was interesting and experimental at times. And Arielle Holmes isn’t the only cast member with real life heroin experience. Co-star Necro (who made a name for himself in the late 90’s as a prominent figure in the underground hip-hop scene as a producer and rapper) based much of his early lyrical content on his heroin addicted uncle “Howie” who passed away a few years ago.
But at the end of the day, “cliché” and “amateurish” are the main two things that come to mind here. It should be stated that my opinion does appear to be in the minority though, so see for yourself.