Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 18, 2014 5:12 am 
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Druggie street kids' New York romance realistically dramatizes the mess, lacks depth or context

Judging by their semi-autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, the New York indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie just don't do "calm." In their new feature Heaven Knows What the young street heroin addicts live hour-by-hour, not day-by-day, and never take a break. They always have "a lot to do." All this energy: they could be working on Wall Street. And high stakes stock brokers do lots of drugs too! There is intensity and a lot of accomplishment observable in Heaven Knows What. The lingo is right, the milieus are real, many of the "actors," including Arielle Holmes, whose serial Apple Store outpourings of jotted memoirs this is based on, are playing grimly accurate versions of themselves. The grayish cinematography with extensive use of long lenses creates a vérité intimacy that sucks you in. Yet compared to work like Martin Bell's '84 documentary classic Streetwise, this docudrama feels like a blitz tour, a drug variation on poverty porn, a choppy collection of riffs that follow its street addict crew, Harley, Ilya, Mike, Skully, Isaac and a few others, around and around -- without penetrating deeply into personalities or lives. The film drags our noses in the dirt, but we are not enlightened or touched.

Streetwise grew out of more than a year's work by Bell's wife Mary Ellen Mark getting to know the Seattle street kids. Those black and white images stay etched on one's mind; the documentary brought them to life. The result may fill you with sadness but there is no sense of an effort to shock. Watching Heaven Knows What, one feels this is an artifact that, if not purposely designed, nonetheless is ideally suited, to épater la bourgeoisie, but not shock them with poetry like the French 19th-century decadents. To shock them with mess, with lives carelessly thrown away. This is voyeuristic stuff Larry Clark would have made sexier, KIds with less plot and colder weather. Heightening the harshness, it all happens in a few days in the dead of winter.

The film came from a chance encounter the Safdie brothers tell of with a pretty girl named Arielle Holmes working as a temp in the New York diamond district. They talked to her, tried to get her a job in a video, thenn learned she was homeless and a heroin addict. They got her to write about her life and decided to make a movie out of it with their collaborator Ronald Bronstein, with Arielle playing herself. The center of the story was her romance with Ilya, a self-centered, mean loner whose provocations and rejections apparently only fueled her devotion. The film begins with a reenactment of Harley's (Arielle's) suicide attempt. She slashes her wrist in a kind of protest at Ilya's indifference. The opening scene is shot in the New York Public Library using long lenses. Instead of being pushed to care, Ilya only dares Harley to do it. So she does, and goes to the psychiatric hospital.

To play Ilya, because the Safdies thought he was a self-dramatizing character, they found a professional actor, Caleb Landry Jones, who took on the job with potentially dangerous risk-taking commitment to authenticity. Another character, Skully, who goes around with Haley after she's released with her wrist stitched, is played by an underground rapper, Neecro. Most of the others are non-actors.

There is a kind of shape that emerges: the doomed love story. Harley (Arielle) even writes long poetical declarations of eternal devoction to Ilya. The real Ilya was around as the shooting went on and OD'ed and had to be revived in a fast food restaurant; Caleb Landry Jones's Ilya OD's too, and is revived by Harley. She goes around with him again, and he hides her duffle bag for laughs. They kiss, and they take a bus to go south, but he abandons her. She has taken up with drug dealer Mike (Buddy Duress, a real street person, and the most articulate character), and after all the shooting up, the begging for money ("spanging"), pilfering and reselling stuff from drugstores, sleeping in shared apartments, and all the rest, Harley winds up back with Mike, and the togetherness of the street addicts, who fight but hug and call each other "bro."

Apart from the committed performances, in Arielle's case reenactments, there are certainly things that work: the Safdie brothers may be being more misguided or superficial than in the case of their richer, more complex and autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, but they are still strongly committed to honing their craft. Even if it would have been better to step back to take a breath and provide perspectives, Heaven Knows What does have a clean, tight structure, the "miracle of economy" in editing and storytelling noted by Noel Murray in The Dissolve,. The first great thing you notice about the film is Sean Price Williams’s cinematography, with its cloudy pale ugly-beautiful capturing of the street that is very consistent and very limber. What is not so great is the much-admired-by-some and sometimes -- even from the first minutes -- extremely obtrusive electronic synthesizer Debussy by Isao Tomita, sub-Philip Glass at best.

Heaven Knows What, 93 mins., debuted at Venice. It was screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival. At Toronto Mike D'Angelo rated this third of his top six films, with a rating of 70 and the tweet comment "Sustains an assaultive mode longer than I would have thought possible. Wish it ended rather than stopped."

US theatrical release beginning Fri. 29 May 2015 (Landmark Sunshine NYC). Metacritic rating 76%. based on only 7 reviews.

(For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.)

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