'Heaven Knows What': Venice Review

Heaven Knows What
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
A grunge tone poem

Filmmaking brothers Josh and Benny Safdie train their cinema-verite gaze on the chaotic lives of heroin users on the streets of New York

VENICE — The days of The Panic in Needle Park, to name one iconic New York City drug movie, seem long gone, now that most of Manhattan's one-time junkie hangouts have been gentrified to within an inch of their lives. But in Heaven Knows WhatJosh and Benny Safdie rescue that subculture from the invisible margins. They weave a small group of young heroin addicts into the fabric of the city streets with a grubby lyricism that's visually intoxicating even if its emotional impact remains somewhat muted.

Following their detour into unconventional sports documentary with Lenny Cooke, the sibling filmmaker team returns to the scruffy aesthetic, raw authenticity and unstrung characters of their first feature, Daddy Longlegs.

Their new slice of life on the fringes is often hard to watch due to the pain, self-destructiveness and even the numbing Warholian monotony of the existences it depicts with a verite candor that owes much to John Cassavetes. But the film, which at times also recalls the lo-fi work of Gus Van Sant, is laced with moments of surprising poignancy, goofy low-key farce and even a weird kind of charm. It's also distinguished by an intense screen-acting debut from Arielle Holmes, playing an unflinching version of herself and her own experience.

While the movie's theatrical prospects are slim, the triple showcase of Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festival slots should help build a platform for VOD exposure.

Ronald Bronstein, memorable as the less-than-model parent in Daddy Longlegs, wrote the screenplay with Josh Safdie, based on Holmes' unpublished memoir, Mad Love in New York City. She plays Harley, a homeless drug addict in an obsessive on-again, off-again relationship with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), whose nihilistic indifference extends to encouraging her suicidal impulses. That results in Harley slashing her wrist and landing in Bellevue in a mesmerizing sequence, played without dialogue and flooded with unsettling synth scoring.

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' 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. They bleed into the visual field of sidewalks, storefronts, cars and pedestrians. This is not a portrait of New York's junkie street subculture conveniently tucked into some skeevy pocket of the city. Instead they move freely, sometimes chafing against their surroundings, through libraries, Internet cafes, bookstores and fast-food joints.

The loose narrative tracks Harley's half-hearted attempts to get by without Ilya. She brushes off the advances of abrasive Skully (rapper Necro) and slips into a friendship with Mike (Buddy Duress), an amusingly verbose dealer and fellow addict; he keeps her in smack but bristles when she can't pay, his tenderness shifting to hostility.

While there's a suggestion of a romantic triangle in Harley's oscillations between Ilya and Mike, the Safdies are less interested in story or character than in immersing us in a milieu that most people would prefer to ignore. The film observes Harley and her cohorts "spanging," street vernacular for begging, be it for spare change or subway entry; or stealing from a mailman's bag, sifting through the contents for gift cards or cash.

A joyride on the motorcycle of Mike's drug supplier Antoine (Benjamin Antoine Hampton) hints at momentary escape. But when the possibility of real deliverance surfaces via a hastily planned bus journey to Florida with the unpredictable Ilya, that notion is revealed to be an empty hope.

Heaven Knows What is a strange film, at once distancing and transfixing. If it's not as impactful as it might have been considering the experiences portrayed, it has potent atmosphere and an admirable refusal to put any kind of gloss on the bleak reality of its limbo world. It also helps that Holmes, Jones and Duress, as well as the mainly non-actors in secondary roles, all inhabit their characters with real conviction.

Production companies: Iconoclast, Elara Pictures
Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Necro, Eleonore Hendricks, Yuri Pleskun, Benjamin Antoine Hampton, Diana Singh
Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
Screenwriters: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, based on the novel, "Mad Love in New York City" by Arielle Holmes 
Producers: Oscar Boyson, Sebastian Bear-McClard
Executive producers: Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel, Nicolas Lhermitte
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designer: Audrey Tanner
Editors: Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Sales: ICM

No rating, 94 minutes.