“You just gotta see that junk is just another nine-to-five gig in the end,” wrote Jim Carroll in “The Basketball Diaries” way back in 1978. Perhaps no film about heroin has captured that grinding routine of score-shoot-nod-hustle-score as well as “Heaven Knows What” — and it’s easy to see why. The film’s lead actress, Arielle Holmes, was herself a 19-year-old junkie living rough on the streets of New York City.

A chance meeting with filmmaker siblings Benny and Joshua Safdie resulted in them motivating Holmes to turn her experiences into a story; she spent days on end standing at Apple stores typing out her (soon to be published) memoirs called “Mad Love in New York City,” and the Safdies were impressed enough to make a film of it.

Holmes cleaned up so she could act on a daily basis, and the film was shot on the streets of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan with a cast that includes both Holmes’ street crew as well as actors with firsthand experience of the drug scene. You know those wild-eyed street people you see shouting at each other while holding garbage bags full of lord-only-knows-what and looking like they haven’t taken a bath in months? That’s the cast.

Heaven Knows What
Run Time 94 mins
Language English
Opens Dec. 19

“Heaven Knows What” follows a homeless young addict named Harley — basically a thinly fictionalized version of Holmes herself. When we first meet her, she’s threatening to kill herself to prove a point to her death-metal junkie boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, the highest profile actor in the film, who was cast because the real Ilya was deemed too volatile). He encourages her to go through with it, quickly establishing the level of mental dysfunction the film deals with.

After a brief stint in a psych ward, Harley winds up back on the streets begging for change — “spanging,” as they call it — and stealing low-hanging fruit from mailman bags and bodegas. Money earned is promptly spent on booze or smack. She takes up with a dealer/addict named Mike (street kid Buddy Duress, who was jailed shortly after the film premiered), who kind of likes her but also realizes that he’s just getting played for free bags of dope; like all of the characters in the film, he’s too wasted to be sure of anything. In Harley’s head, Ilya is her one and only, but to the viewer it’s not clear why.

The Safdies start things in medias res, and they never really pull back to give us the bigger picture. This is initially effective, but it fails when it comes to explaining Ilya and Harley’s relationship. Landry Jones is fine, exuding a cool cruelty and inscrutability, but his part is underwritten to the extent that he comes off as just a sadistic punk; whatever Holmes saw in him, it’s not on the screen. Similarly, we learn nothing of what drove Harley onto the street or what makes her tick.

At this point, most people will probably be wondering if they want to spend 90 minutes with the type of people they probably cross the street to avoid. Kudos to the Safdies for not sugar-coating or otherwise romanticizing the experience of being an addict, but it is a bummer to watch. They do manage to express the constant desperation of this lifestyle, though — the neverending wave of small crises that make up each day.

Strangely, the film is most effective when it’s at its most abstract: a scene of Harley freaking out as she’s forcibly committed to a mental facility — with the dialogue muted and replaced by a fizzing, disorienting soundtrack of synthesizer arpeggios — is ironically best at expressing the chaos inside its heroine’s head. (The music of early electronic composer Isao Tomita features heavily on the soundtrack. )

The structure of the film is also quite precise: Everything happens over the course of a couple days, but Harley winds up in pretty much exactly the same place she started. If it wasn’t for the real-life success story of her graduation from junkie to actress, though, this would be a much harder film to take.

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