In Heaven Knows What, the Safdie brothers create an intriguing blend of fiction and documentary as they follow actress Arielle Holmes playing, well, the character of Arielle Holmes from the book written by, well, by Arielle Holmes. Let me parse that, in case your head is spinning. Holmes lived as a homeless heroin addict for some time; after she got clean, she wrote a book about her experiences; the Safdies met Holmes and decided to make a film based on her book. It’s a real masterstroke, letting Holmes play herself; she obviously knows the life of a homeless heroin addict down to her bones and it shows in her minimal, but absolutely honest performance. The film has taken some heat for its aimlessness and plotlessness and I admit that, even for me, the film added up to being a little too meandering. There’s no real drive or energy to the film; it’s just a few days in the life of this addict. But in capturing that life, it feels as true as any film could possibly be and it’s hard to argue that you need to ask anything else from a work of art. The film is also resolutely free of big dramatic moments; you never get the scene of a single tear running down Holmes’ face, if you know what I mean. But there are scenes that standout; an argument over whether Holmes has four bags of heroin or two is a real masterpiece and there’s an entirely wordless scene of Holmes in a rehab facility that is genuinely nightmarish, thanks in large part to the deafening, dissonant, industrial score. It’s a troubling film and it has problems. There’s a section of the film where we leave Holmes and follow another character and that section doesn’t work at all; we’re effectively living Holmes’ life in this film and I really wished that character had just vanished from our lives, as he did from Holmes’. It feels very strange, late in the film, to know things that Holmes doesn’t. But I can’t discount from the film too much. It’s definitely a challenging, deeply real movie and its flaws can’t measure up to its positives. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – strikingly realistic performances mark this true to life portrait of a few days in the life of a homeless heroin addict; strives, perhaps a bit too much, to avoid plot and dramatics. 3 ½ stars.