There’s little doubt that it’s a challenging journey, but is certainly one worth taking…
As Heaven Knows What opens we’re introduced to Harley (Arielle Holmes, on whose story the film is based). Harley loves Ilya (rising star Caleb Landry Jones) so much that she would be prepared to do anything for him to prove it, including slitting her wrists. That’s unfortunate, because it’s exactly what he asks her to do and so, with a little reluctance on her part but also with an upsetting sense of inevitability on the film’s part, she does. At this point we are about twenty minutes into the picture and, conspicuously, all of the plot material mentioned on the film’s blurb has already been burnt through, so, for the next seventy minutes, it mostly makes do without one, as Harley drifts through life, occasionally separated from Ilya, occasionally reunited with him in situations which become increasingly bizarre and threatening – which is a feat when the film opened with him encouraging her to slit her wrists.
The picture, which appears to owe its moody, slightly surreal ambience, improv-ish acting, swirly synth score and relaxed approach to plotting all to Spring Breakers, gets by pretty well. It helps that it’s a much, much better film than Spring Breakers, with dedicated, three-dimensional performances and direction – from brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie – more sympathetic to the human plight than the smug nihilism found in Harmony Korine’s body of work. Nonetheless, it suffers from a touch of thematic uncertainty at its core. Harley and Ilya are both heroin addicts, as are many of their numerous friends, but the picture never quite seems to decide whether its agenda is that junkies can’t be in love (since their true love is, and always will be, heroin), or whether Harley’s love for Ilya is genuine. If it is the latter then really, it will take more convincing, as the character we see is consistently charmless, cruel, and looks like a young Tommy Wiseau, so when Harley takes up with a much more likeable character, the drug dealer Mike, it’s baffling that Ilya still exerts any emotional power over her at all. Still, the title of Holmes’ memoir was Mad Love in New York City, so apparently we’re meant to chalk it up to just that: mad love. Most strangely of all, the film ends with a dedication to the real Ilya. One wonders if he was as awful in real life as his fictionalised counterpart.
With a number of commendable performances, some truly harrowing sequences, and a remarkable score, the picture eventually rewards viewers for their patience, promising to stick in the brain. Nonetheless this journey through homelessness and addiction in frozen New York is a difficult one, and not all will make it through.
Heaven Knows What is released in cinemas this Friday (29th April), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!