MIFF review: Heaven Knows What

Mesmerisingly Woozy Vision Of New York’s Mean Streets. Arielle Holmes Is An Incredible Find.

The term ‘based on a true story,’ is an overly abused one, but when it comes to New York cool filmic kids the Safdie brothers’ Ben and Joshua, their unflinching look at New York’s homeless drug culture in Heaven Knows What earns the right.

The cast is formed from mostly non-professionals, guys genuinely living on the street, and is led by a magnetic performance from Arielle Holmes, the former drug addict on whose memoir the film is based. Joshua adapted Holmes’ recollections alongside Ronald Bronstein.

The only major ring in is Antiviral’s Caleb Landry Jones as her bad seed ex-boyfriend who, in the movie’s confronting opening scene, finds great entertainment in provoking her suicide attempt.

That should give you some idea of the grimness on show here, at levels that make Requiem for a Dream seem a little Disney, and yet there’s something quite mesmeric about the drugged-up mumbling and fumbling that draws you inexorably into this Shakespearean tragedy ready to roll.

Holmes is an incredible find, physically odd in a way that the camera loves and a captivatingly naturalistic performer. I genuinely hope that the combination of her memoir’s success and the critical reception of this film will mean good things for her in the future, as her life has certainly been awful enough to date. The impeccably named Buddy Duress is similarly impressive as a fellow heroin addict and dealer with wild mood swings who’s locked into and aggressive competition with Jones, resulting in a sterling smack down with improvised ninja weapons.

It’s no surprise to see the brotherly duo showcased at this year’s MIFF despite their scant back catalogue. The Safdie’s continue to demonstrate a keen eye for hyper-realistic detail and are ably assisted in spinning this woozy nightmare by the discomforting synth score from Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink. Likewise, cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ uncomfortably invasive close ups add to the overall effect of putting you uncomfortably close to this hot mess.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★