Heaven Knows What ★★★★

For the unsuspecting, Heaven Knows What might seem a little too raw and real to stomach. As an unflinching and harrowing exploration of the lives of homeless heroin addicts in upper New York City, there’s no holding back on the grim truth. And this is the truth, in a literal sense, for the story is based on actual events, and many of the actors really were the characters they portrayed. Of note especially is the lead star, Arielle Holmes, who attracted the attention of the directors whilst on the street and agreed to have her story be told onscreen. Though she was allegedly off heroin during the shoot, she still conveys an exacting portrait of an addict’s life: the desperation, the dependence on others, the swing of emotions, the relief of another rush. Added in is the constant presence of her abusive Russian boyfriend (played, thankfully, by an actor rather than the genuine article), who begins the film by goading her to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. He is volatile and vile, but she still loves him despite the fact because he gives her what others cannot: the wisdom and guile needed to survive in a world that cares little about the plight of the lowest classes.

I think that’s one of the things that Heaven Knows What is so good at depicting. No one gives a shit about these souls. When you watch the scenes on the public streets, you notice that passersby simply walk on, ignoring these characters even when they’re shouting up a storm of obscenities. Nary is a glance passed their way, and though they do a lot of spanging, the only time a stranger comes up to talk is when a charitable Jewish man gives Arielle’s character $20 for drugs. And then there’s that heartbreaking scene on the bus. I won’t give away what happens, but the apathy of the event is so sickening that it shatters you. These are human beings, we think. Why do we forget they exist?

The thing is, though, most of us are guilty of forgetting. We’ve probably done it too many times to count. And though I don’t think the film is meant to be solely a wakeup call, it still allows us to reflect on these characters and others like them. Why they are the way they are and why they go the ways they go. Yes, they make stupid decisions, but without anyone else to rely on but themselves, what else can they do? Their lives are still meaningful and shouldn’t be discounted. If we understood, we may be kinder. We may take these people seriously and try to help them. The Safdies took a chance when they saw Arielle. They made what is a very good and hard-hitting film because they believed that her story needed exposure. And if their efforts are not to be in vain, we should take this experience and keep the chain of charity moving, for as much as we are prone to doing bad things, we are also capable for immense good.