It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Another film about junkies? That question almost inevitably follows one’s learning the subject of Josh and Benny Safdie’s New York-set drama “Heaven Knows What,” and its main implication is clear: heroin addiction is at once so limited and so overdone as a narrative premise that filmmakers approaching it need to have something new to say, or to show.
Unfortunately, the Safdies don’t. Their film is the latest in a long line of movies that seem to assume the milieu of addiction is justification enough for its existence. The result is a work that—like a whole sub-species of French films of the recent decades—fetishizes its own hyper-naturalistic visual style and performances (all but one by non-actors) while offering no original or striking insights into the world it portrays.
No doubt the film’s surface attractions and its core weaknesses both owe to its origins. Reportedly, the Safdies were researching a project in New York’s diamond district when they spotted a pretty young blonde who they assumed might be a Russian diamond worker. Turns out she was a heroin addict from New Jersey named Arielle Holmes who had a troubled romantic relationship with another addict named Ilya.
Fascinated by Holmes’ stories of her street life, the Safdies persuaded her to write an account of it, a manuscript that became the basis for their screenplay (co-written by Ronald Bronstein). With Holmes playing Harley, a character who apparently differs from herself in name only, the filmmakers shot in the neighborhoods she frequented using people she knew as secondary characters and hidden cameras to disguise their presence (a technique also employed in Oren Moverman’s forthcoming “Time Out of Mind,” about a New York homeless man).