HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (2015, Josh & Benny Safdie)
Don’t be fooled by the bland, pillowy title. This is one of the most deeply disturbing, unpleasant experiences you’ll have at the movies. It’s also pretty damn good.
A word-cloud of discussions and reviews about it will likely generate frequent uses of things like “authentic,” “dirty,” “real,” “raw,” and “grimy.” Shot almost entirely with non-professional actors playing versions of themselves (i.e., smack junkies and dealers), on location with guerilla intensity (though the long lenses they’re forced to use in order to keep the camera out of the way do create a distance between the audience and characters, and often pushes us away when we need to be closer), HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT surely passes the verisimilitude test. It makes a Dardennes picture feel like sci-fi fantasy. This is the first film I’ve seen by the Safdie brothers (Josh writes, Benny edits, they both direct) but I’ll bet they’ll make some pretty good dramas.
The best thing they did, though, is discover and cast Arielle Holmes, a fierce talent who reportedly is just acting out her life on screen. But the fact that she has no training and is making no stretches doesn’t take away from the sheer force of her performance — her character is compelling and ultimately someone you care deeply for, even though she continues to make one terrible choice after another. At one point she is storming down a busy New York City sidewalk in a filthy black hoodie talking to herself with flailing arms. The passersby (almost surely real pedestrians who don’t know a movie is being shot, UNDER THE SKIN style) ignore her or look askance, and it’s a scene we’ve all been part of every time we walk through a major urban area. Some homeless nutjob, either crazy or on drugs, talking to themselves and being a nuisance. Let me just hurry up and get to my car. But here, we know who she is. We know why she’s upset, and we would rather follow this nutjob heroin addict more than any other person in the entire borough.