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Sleeper of the Week: ‘Heaven Knows What’

Sleeper of the Week: 'Heaven Knows What'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only a few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“Heaven Knows What”
Dir: Ben & Joshua Safdie
Criticwire Average: B+

New York-based indie filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie’s new drama “Heaven Knows What” captures the gritty lived experience of drug addiction in New York City. It’s based on a memoir written by Arielle Holmes, a former addict who was spotted by the Safdie brothers on the subway. Holmes also stars in the film as the lead character Harley as she navigates her doomed love affair with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), suicide attempts, hospital visits, and finding the next place to score. But “Heaven Knows What” isn’t an anti-drug PSA nor a glorification of drug use, but rather a simple depiction of the life of an addict. It explores New York from the perspective of those who live between its walls and engage with others in their tiny subculture. Though the Safdie brothers shoot the film with the immediacy of an on-the-ground documentary, “Heaven Knows What” functions as a movie driven by poetry and understated beauty. It’s a film worth seeking out.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Scott Tobias, The Dissolve

“Heaven Knows What” isn’t interested in merely exploring the world of New York City addicts. It wants to make their experiences felt, with the dissonant, amp-cracking roar of a punk anthem. Read more.

Matt Prigge, Metro

Remarkably, the Safdies neither glamorize nor demonize what she’s doing. “Heaven Knows What” can’t be reduced to an anti-drug ad, as many drug movies are, in part because the drugs are scarce, in part because there’s a detachment, even a faint darkly comic edge. Sean Price Williams’ camera is always in on the move, and the cuts don’t dwell long either. It feels like a sci-fi film, complete with an electronic score touting throbbing bass. Read more.

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian

Josh and Bennie Safdie’s breathtaking new film, “Heaven Knows What,” is a similar souffle of seeming contradiction. It;s a movie in which, in terms of plot, hardly anything happens, yet each scene is thick with tension. It has the raw urgency of cinéma vérité, but is actually quite stylised. There is also, in fairness, nothing new in this peek at a life of drug-addicted street dwellers, yet the whole production ties itself up in a bow that feels fresh. Read more.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

As gritty as Heaven Knows What often feels, it’s leavened by empathy and poetic moments: desperate kisses, a passed-out couch nap lit by slanting sunbeams, the beautifully eerie synth music of Tomita. This isn’t an easy watch, but it validates every risk we want our most emboldened filmmakers to take. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

The Safdies’ previous films, which include “Lenny Cooke” and “Daddy Longlegs,” have their fans, but aren’t noted for being particularly adventurous. “Heaven Knows What,” by contrast, sometimes functions as an all-out assault. Read more.

Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com

The look, of course, is very close to that of a documentary, which raises the question: Why isn’t “Heaven Knows What” a documentary? If conveying the reality of junkie life was the main objective, that course might have been more productive. As in many other cases, turning real-life material into drama can produce an awkward hybrid: a film in which the reality is diluted by fictionalization, while the fiction is rendered thin and sometimes clichéd due to being shackled to its real-life origins. Read more.

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