Written by The Vern
Remember the old saying, ”You can never truly know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes”? Well, I walked around for a few hours in this movie’s lead character’s shoes and I still don’t have a better understanding now then when I first started.
I did learn that drug users go through a lot of work just to get their fix. To be fair, I got the same idea from other movies such as, Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, and Panic in Needle Park. What makes Heaven Knows What stand out from all those is the realism it shows. If I wasn’t told that these were just actors, I would have assumed that this is a documentary. After all, the screenplay was based on the real-life memories of Arielle Holmes, who was at one time a former heroin addict.
Movies based on real drug users have been done before in movies ranging from Permanent Midnight to The Basketball Diaries. However in those movies an actor is portraying that person. But in this one, Arielle Holmes is playing herself. It’s a very brave thing to do and I applaud her performance very much in this. It can’t be easy to reenact troubling things from your past and do it in a way that still feels like it’s happening for the first time. If directors Ben and Joshua Safdie used another actress in that role, you would know that you are watching a fictional movie. By casting Arielle and using some of her friends and actual locations, you get a sense of gritty realism that is missing from other movies about drug abuse. The only real issue with this is that you don’t get any real insights into these characters or understand why they are the way that they are. A lot of this movie is spent with these characters getting their fix, and we never know why they do it.
The story centers around Harley (Arielle Holmes) who is head over heels in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Her devotion to this man is so strong that when he asks her to prove her love by slitting her wrists, she obliges instantly. This Ilya dude is a major jackass and does nothing at all to make me see why she would care even one ounce about him. Harley despite being homeless and a heroin junkie still looks a lot better than this Ilya dude, so I never understood why she would want to stay with him. Ladies, if a guy asks you to cut your wrists to prove your love to him, you need to leave him right away.
After the suicide attempt, Harley is sent to a psychiatric ward. She’s not in there for very long and is back on the streets again. I’m guessing she has no family or that they know nothing or even care about her. She meets up with a few friends who, along with giving her drugs, ask her to leave this Ilya guy, but she’s not having it. If you asked her to give up heroin, she would most likely have the same response. Harley and her friends are shown begging, shoplifting, and doing whatever they can to help feed their fix. One night, Harley gets info that Ilya is having an overdose in a fast food bathroom. She goes and saves him and now the two are back in love again. Will this devotion to each other stay strong or will their love of the drug destroy them even more?
It’s usually a good thing if a movie doesn’t spoon feed you a character’s motivations so you can discover for yourself what their true intentions are. The only thing I ever understood about Harley is that she loves to get high and she is in love with a jerk who wants her to kill herself. Heaven Knows What has been compared to Requiem for a Dream, but at least that movie shows you why those characters did what they did. I understand that people love to get high and that sometimes they’ll do anything to obtain it. At least with Requiem, it showed how everything could be an addiction and how easy it is to want to feed that lust. I never got those same feelings when I watched this. If this was a documentary, I would be a little more forgiving on what they could show or could not show.
Maybe the intention of the film was to just show a little slice of these characters’ lives. It was very fascinating and Arielle Holmes does a very great job with it. It’s the kind of performance that should get more award recognition than it has. The film has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing and the John Cassavetes Award.
I may have not gotten much out of this movie except that “drugs are bad, m’kay,” but I at least tried on the shoes to see if they fit. Will they fit you?