Heaven Knows What ★★★★½

The fact that “Heaven Knows What” exists is a miracle. The fact that I’ve been able to see it is a privilege. The fact that the film is great is a godsend.

Obviously the film’s buzz is derived mostly from the fact that this is based off the life of the actress playing the main character, and the verite style capitalizes on the realism of the film. The film’s structure is one meant to imitate monotony, a cyclical tale of constant deflation. Even when the film occasionally slips into convention, It defies expectations by refusing to conform to anything familiar, or anything comfortable. That's not to say that the film is inflammatory, cold, or in any way reliant on shock-value; Rather, it is quite the opposite. "Heaven Knows What" is wise enough to realize that downward spirals are not those of epic proportions, built entirely out of the big bangs and screams which infect most stories of addiction; this is the quieter, truer spiral of continuously desperation pleas with strangers, the Cassettes style of melodrama where nothing happens except for two people taking increasingly drastic, increasingly useless attempts to communicate their desires, their pain. It is an explosion igniting an implosion, self-destruction where the line between cause and effect is so blurred that it’s unclear whether New York is manifestation of Harley’s addiction, if her addiction and her love affair are evidence of something deeper, or all spun around and turned inside out. I’m not sure Harley knows herself. I’m not even sure it matters.

This is visceral, pure cinema. It is beautifully shot, in a way that looks often zoomed in, as if Harley is a small speck in the larger tapestry of New York City. The score jumps and leaps and glides through the neuroses, minds, and impulses of the subculture, a shattering but infectious cinematic high. The performances are amateurish, but in their own way that makes them better. Arielle Holmes gives one of the years best performances, and even if the performance may just be the way she is, or perhaps the way she was, it does not detract from the simple truth that the performance, like the film as a whole, is a stunning work of art meant to be experienced as if the boundaries between the audience and the screen have disappeared.

“Heaven Knows What” is a film of startling, incomparable intimacy. There is not a moment here that feels exploitative, although that isn’t mine to say. I am not someone who has experienced this kind of life; that’s a large part, I think, why this film was made in the first place. I would presume it does speak to some power of the film that I walked away from “Heaven Knows What” feeling like a better person, more aware, more empathetic, more knowledgeable not of any factoids or tropes or lingo, but of mannerisms, syntax, the general way conversation works in a subculture who go about life in a way I couldn’t have otherwise really visualized. I cried in the film, but this was not a film meant to make me cry. This was a film to make me understand, to remove all judgment and replace it with empathy. Of course along with that comes pain, unbearable pain, and deep melancholy. It is a film that doesn't force you to feel any certain way, simply to watch, and to naturally grow to understand. I would never dare say that this film makes me feel like a former heroin addict, but it makes me feel like I have witnessed a small portion of the life of one; I have witnessed the crushing of a soul.

In that way, “Heaven Knows What” is tiny. And in that way, “Heaven Knows What” is the most powerful, unassuming tragedy of the year. I am infinitely grateful.

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