Friday, June 5, 2015


"I don't like repetition!" shouts Harley, our main character, who's desperately trying to escape a guy, named Skully, who won't leave her alone. She wants to escape a guy who seems to care about her well-being but comes across as a little too aggressive and judgmental when it comes to her daily routines/habits/addictions. Once she finally leaves Skully behind he's gone. We never see him in the movie again and we're only about 15 minutes in. Once a person's out of Harley's life, they're out for good. Or, until she needs them again. For Harley, her only relationships revolve around fellow heroin addicts and enablers although, mainly, it revolves around Ilya. The irony of her distaste for repetition comes into play when she keeps letting Ilya back into her life; Ilya is almost essentially the personification of heroin. Something Harley knows might not be good for her, but she just cannot stay away. So, she keeps coming back to him/it again and again with zero signs of letting up, and if there's ever a point where she feels she can't have him/it, disaster strikes.

Phew. That opening paragraph was a load off. It's so easy to get lost in this film because this is a film whose characters are hopelessly lost. Because "Heaven Knows What" is shot with such intense fervor, with the manic techno music being the cherry on top, you're almost immediately sucked in this world right with them. Or, you're completely repulsed. It depends. Depends on whether or not you can have empathy for people like this, whether or not you care to learn about the life of a heroin junkie. If this type of subject matter is something you're not interested in or if these are people you have absolutely zero compassion for, then everything about this movie will repulse you. I even heard someone in my audience say to his date, "I wanted to walk out after the first 15 minutes." I don't blame him.

Once the opening credits started to roll and the music played, however, I was completely sucked in. I was still repulsed at times. There were still moments where I felt compelled to turn away. But there were something about these characters that I was drawn to. I saw the humanity in their eyes. These people are my age or younger. I know I went to high school with people who talked like this or acted like this. If you're currently living in my hometown, you've probably seen people my age who are like this. To shut yourself off from the lives of characters like these is to make pretend that this isn't happening around you. I grew up in Ocean County, New Jersey, which is a pretty affluent area and yet I keep hearing about heroin overdoses left and right. I was once at a Target in Toms River and overheard two employees talk about someone shooting up in the bathroom. It's completely fucked up my town. I'm lucky enough to not know anybody personally who's been affected by heroin, but there have been 2 very notable people in the last two years to die way too young of an overdose.

Those two people: actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February 2014, who died at the age of 46. Someone who had kicked nasty drug habits when he was in his early 20s, yet somehow found his way back into the stronghold of addiction. This past February, it was writer/comedian Harris Wittels, who died at age 30. He was a naturally hilarious and gifted performer who especially excelled at podcasts. He went to rehab a couple of times, months before his death, and had so much going for him at the time of his death. When these deaths happen to famous people like that, we're left to wonder, "these people had everything and they threw it away for drugs." It's a dismissive attitude. Yet, watching "Heaven Knows What" can easily explain what that lifestyle entails. When you're hooked on heroin, the only thing that matters is the next high. That's the ONLY thing that matters. No matter what your status is, when you're in between heroin highs, your behavior will not be too far from the characters in this film.

And it's especially surreal because when I see Harley's face, I swear I've seen her before. Maybe not exactly her, but I know someone who looked exactly like her. Someone who had similar problems, someone I used to hang out with when we were kids. Something about Harley made this movie personal for me even though I actually did not know her. And I think I felt that way because the movie has a palpable sense of realism. Arielle Holmes, who plays Harley, these events are actually based on her life. She is, in effect, playing herself. She was 21 when she filmed the movie and was 19 when these events happened to her. The film moves in a way that almost feels hypnotic. You see a character (maybe) die on screen, then moments later you read "In memory of *character's name* 1989-2015." All of a sudden, it snaps you back out and it's reinforced that it's mostly real people that are being depicted. And the deceased person, who the fictionalized character is based on, was actually alive when they finished filming the movie. The world depicted in the film is still there. If you were to walk down the streets of Manhattan long enough, you just might find these characters. They're out there. They really are.

Josh and Ben Safdie directed this film and what they have crafted feels so immediate, it's as if you can really hear the time running out on these people. These characters live in a world where someone that seemed fine two scenes ago could be overdosing in a McDonald's bathroom just minutes/hours/days later. Death lurks around these characters as every dose they take can wind up being their last. At any moment, they can find themselves in a hospital, in prison, or six feet under ground. This sense of uneasy vitality creates a nagging dread. It's like a horror film, but not the kind with jump scares. That feeling you get in a horror movie when you're afraid someone's about to die? That's what "Heaven Knows What" feels like for 90 minutes.

But let's talk about Harley again. Her story is pretty clear. She's intensely in love with Ilya, a young man who repeatedly demonstrates that he has no deep interest in her. Or maybe he once did and that changed when he discovered her with someone else. But that lingering feeling of intense love that she has with Ilya is the only consistent, overarching feeling she has with anyone. You get the sense that she really does care about him, despite what she may say or do 5-10 minutes later. At the end of the day, she still thinks the world of him, yet when we see Ilya, we are at a loss as to how this could possibly be. It's a love that seems irrational, but then of course, her addiction to heroin seems irrational too. The epiphany that occurs, early on when watching the film, is that Ilya and heroin are literally the only things she has. That's all her world revolves around. Even though most of her time is spent her following around a guy named Mike. The only reason she's constantly around him? He's her dealer.

Harley, Mike, and Ilya live in a world that's depressing. It especially feels insular. If you're not involved with heroin, there'd be absolutely no reason to be involved with any of these characters. They seem to live on a completely different planet. So when someone like Skully gets cast aside early on in the film and then we never see him again, it's because he's left that planet. When you're trying to help someone whose life completely revolves around heroin, it can be very easy to just give up because they're giving you every reason to. Why else do so many heroin users immediately find their dealer after a stint in rehab? Even if they think they feel clean, in the back of their mind, it's always about that one last hit. And if that's a thought that NEVER leaves your mind, no matter what you do, it can be very easy to give in. It's just seems hopeless, which is why it's important for those of us who are completely out of that world to realize and understand just how hopeless their situation is.

The only way we can start to help is to have empathy which is why a movie like "Heaven Knows What" is so vital. It may not say anything particularly new about addiction or heroin abuse, it just simply shows a world where heroin is the only thing that matters to these people. It's shocking, it's baffling, it's frustrating, and in many ways it's terrifying because it's happening around us and it really seems like there's no possible way to break the cycle. But the Safdie brothers at least present a necessary first step and that step involves understanding and empathy. This is why "Heaven Knows What" is one of the most important films of the year.

Grade: A-

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