It would be incredibly difficult to place the most rough time of one's own life into words, which may ultimately be translated to the silver screen. In the case of Arielle Holmes, she has an extraordinary story to tell, but not everything works as a feature-length motion picture. Having not read the book from which it's based upon, Heaven Knows What is a film that could have been more effective as a short film, rather than a 94-minute feature. I can only imagine how powerful the book must be, but as a film, it simply doesn't translate to a cohesive piece of storytelling.
Harley (Arielle Holmes) is a homeless teenager with a massive addiction to both heroin and her toxic boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). Violence is ready to erupt at any moment on the streets, as she embarks upon the never-ending search to score a high. Driven by the desire for the beauty that life has to offer, she's willing to do anything to have both the love of her life and the ability to live on an eternal high.
Heaven Knows What sports an emotionally intense first act, as Harley and Ilya have clearly had a falling out, and Harley is doing all that she can to beg for his forgiveness. However, his lack of acceptance is displayed by ignoring any advances that she makes to speak with him. She's so committed to him, she's willing to attempt suicide in order to get his attention. There's clearly a great amount of sadness and rage hidden underneath the surface, although Harley doesn't know how to express it. Much of Ronald Bronstein and Joshua Safdie's screenplay is made up of overlapping screaming between characters, as they argue with one another. Everything about this film is so ridiculously raw, and that comes across in the dialogue. The confrontations between Harley and those around her feel incredibly genuine. The screenwriters may have had a novel to pull from, but this is a screenplay with a particularly impressive use of dialogue and character in order to deliver a powerful impact. Unfortunately, the meaning of the film is entirely understood before the second act even begins. There are no other goals that the feature tries to strive for, leaving audiences with a message that is repeated so often that it becomes aggravating.
The love that Harley has for Ilya is just as toxic for her as the heroin that she continues to seek out. She momentarily finds happiness in her relationship with him, but it doesn't take very long until their drug habits once again take ahold of their lives. However, the love story feels generic and is told in a way that can best be described as contrived. Unlike the dialogue, it just isn't very convincing. While it works in the first half of the feature, it comes across as an afterthought in the second half. There are no attempts made to make the characters very sympathetic, which is fine. Heaven Knows What thrives entirely on being as gritty as possible without holding much meaning. There's only so much yelling and screaming about the same issues that can be placed in one film before the we start to lose interest in the direction that the story is moving in.
Heaven Knows What is ultimately a film about addiction. Whether it's love or drugs, Harley has self-destructive obsessions that continue to hinder her. She's willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve the thrills of feeling a high. Harley accepts a motorcycle ride from a complete stranger, which furthermore displays her craving for adrenaline. This thirst for more is the source of her problems, but she views it as her salvation. Fortunately, the final twenty minutes or so manage to dig itself out of the hole, but by this point it's too late. The film features a fitting ending that will follow you out of the theater. There's absolutely no subtlety to it, as it makes its point relatively quickly. It's just a shame that the remainder of the feature couldn't have shared this concise nature, rather than repeatedly delivering the same message time after time.
The absolute highlight of the film is the cast. Arielle Holmes stars as the fictionalized character of Harley, although she is actually portraying her own story. This young woman is extremely brave to revisit such memories, but she pulls it off with pure brilliance. Her delivery of the dialogue is absolutely spectacular, as she manages to keep us captivated through all of the screenplay's lulls. Meanwhile, Caleb Landry Jones delivers a superb performance as Ilya. This is a despicable character, yet Jones manages to display a true sense of depth. His behavior is prominently shown, but it's in the more subtle and quiet moments that Jones genuinely thrives in making something of this character. These are two powerful performances that deserve the praise that they have received.
Directors Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie have displayed that they have a fascinating artistic vision that allows them to display material in a unique way. Heaven Knows What continues this trend by giving the true grittiness of the story. Many filmmakers would have shied away from a lot of what the Safdie brothers have delivered. The cinematography perfectly fits the insanely gritty content, providing filters that are able to manipulate our perspective. A neon red takes over the frame when we're meant to feel an ominous presence, which instantly creates a sense of anxiety. This is supported by a score that feels inconsistent, but that aids the overall impact of the feature. Much of it is electronic synth, although there are a few scenes that utilize subtle sounds. Perhaps this is meant to explore the rough exterior that Harley puts on, but the tenderness that actually lives underneath the surface.
Heaven Knows What tells a powerful story that must have been much more effective in the novel. However, the translation to a feature-length motion picture feels pretentious and repetitive. The raw nature of the film is incredibly successful, but it takes far too long to form a message that could have been told in a short film format and been more effective. I deeply wanted to love this movie, but it ultimately ended up being the most aggravating cinema experience at SXSW Film Festival 2015. Heaven Knows What is pretentious and gratuitous in its method of storytelling. Skip it.
Heaven Knows What played at SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 13th, March 14th, and March 18th.