Anthony Le’s review published on Letterboxd:
Part of Essential Films To Watch
"Would you forgive me if I die?"
Take note, Heaven Knows What is one of the best films of the decade. It's unflinching, real cinema - the Safdie brothers craft a film that's half reality, and half fiction. To an extent, it almost seems like the masterpiece Close-Up, but Heaven Knows What is more pertinent to the lives of individuals in North America, because that's where it takes place. And it's not even that most people have experienced the problems presented in the film (well I certainly hope not), it's that we see people like Harley, Mike and Ilya everyday. And yet, we're rarely offered insight into the world of street life. the Safdie brothers provides audiences with that experience in Heaven Knows What, and if you have the chance, please see this film.
Perhaps I loved Heaven Knows What so much because going into the film, I told myself I would love it. But fuck it, it's still an amazing film. First to commend is the Safdie brothers' ballsy subject matter. Who, in their right mind, would create a film about street life and the battle against heroin addiction for mass appeal? This is a subject matter they found especially intriguing, and were able to create an incredibly interesting film out of. And part of that is through their adaption of Arielle Holmes autobiography, where she documents her life on the streets. This is a story filled with despicable people, intense nihilism and unflinching imagery. It's incredible how far Holmes has come, and everything she's achieved since her life on the streets. Seeing her play a character based off herself is incredibly interesting. Though many individuals probably don't have the acting abilities of Holmes, I think this is a concept that should be practiced more often. Holmes understands herself, and is able to evoke the emotions she was feeling through the character of Harley. It doesn't feel like she's playing a character, but rather, she's accepting who she was in the past. And even better, the Safdie brothers decided to cast some of Holmes' friends because certain characters in the film were based off of them. Buddy Durress, who was a past inmate, was cast as the character of Mike, Harley's drug dealer throughout the film, and he gives a magnificent performance. Why? Because he understands street life, because he's experienced it. And this is a concept the Safdie brothers explore even further, which ultimately makes Heaven Knows What a film that can't be missed.
The realism behind Heaven Knows What is what makes it such a great film. And behind the magnificent performances from the entire cast, there's the great cinematography. This is subtle cinematography done right. Is there anything particularly interesting about it? No, it's not incredible visual poetry like Emmanuelle Luzbeki's work, yet it's just as emotionally powerful as that. It's the mixture of shaky cam and a "less professional" video format. It's the indie, low-budget feel of Heaven Knows What that makes it connect even further with the audience. This is an effect a lot of directors attempt, including a lot of mumblecore features. But the Safdie brother's choice to use this filmmaking technique, either purposely or through necessity, makes this film even better than it already is. And don't even get me started on the screenplay. The Safdie brothers don't even attempt to mask Heaven Knows What as a film about incredibly intelligent people. There's no attempt to appeal to a generally more wealthy audience. No, the dialogue is real. The dialogue is exactly what you would hear walking down a Downtown street. All the "Yo's!" and the "What's up?!" only add to the quality of the film, which is rare. If you're writing from the perspective of a six year old, use six year old vocabulary. If you're writing from the perspective of individuals accustomed to street life, write the screenplay that way. And that's what Holmes and the Safdie brothers do. They craft a screenplay which fits the tone and atmosphere perfectly.
Heaven Knows What is a special film, one that shouldn't be missed by cinephiles and the public alike. But since individuals likely won't seek out a small film such as this, I'll advertise it to Letterboxd users. I implore you to go see this film. I haven't felt this strongly about a film since Enemy last year, and Blue Valentine before that. There's so much more to say about this film, but I can't find the right words to describe it. It's definitely an experience, and one that should be taken by every cinephile. Heaven Knows What is a modern masterpiece, and a classic film that, in the future, will hopefully be viewed by more people.