SXSW Review: Heaven Knows What

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Heaven Knows What

Dramas do not get much darker than Heaven Knows What -- or more realistic.

Based on the novel Mad Love in New York City by Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film, Heaven Knows What is bleak from its first horrifying scene. Homeless, heroin-addicted teen Harley (Holmes) is threatening to kill herself, and her emotionally abusive boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) goads her into going through with it. She slashes her wrist, but immediately changes her mind and pleads with Ilya and her homeless friends to call 911.

Harley's desperate act lands her in the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital. True to form, Ilya disappears from her life while she's recovering. Completely alone when she's released, she relies on her friend Skully (underground rapper and cult figure Necro) to help her survive on the streets. But Skully is little better than Ilya; he tells her to forget her useless and noncommittal boyfriend -- something she doesn't want to hear -- and becomes abusive when she rejects his friendship.

Harley moves on to Mike (Buddy Duress), a drug dealer who gives her a cell phone and plenty of drugs, and finds her a place to live. Her life becomes more routine and settled than usual, a directionless day-to-day existence of begging for money, getting her heroin fix and being in a sort-of-relationship with Mike.

But things get complicated -- don't they always in matters of the heart -- when Ilya suddenly returns. Heaven Knows What's story is a drug-addled, mean-streets version of a classic love triangle. Mike is the convenient and mostly reliable good guy Harley has no real feelings for, while Ilya is the passionate ne'er-do-well she can't live without. Harley's all about addiction, be it to heroin or tragic, doomed romance. She's miserable without either one.

Yeah, we've seen all this before in so many movies about impassioned junkies. Heaven Knows What's theme is nothing new, and its narrative arc is thin, wandering as aimlessly as its characters wander around New York. But Heaven Knows What is such a brutally accurate and unblinking depiction of homeless teens' lives that we can forgive its lack of originality.

The film's realism is almost inevitable, given that Holmes actually was a homeless teen when filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie met her while researching another film. Much of Heaven Knows What is straight from Holmes' life (she attempted suicide and had a wild boyfriend named Ilya); Mad Love in New York City came to be after the Safdies asked Holmes to write about her experiences. She did so with great insight into the lives of homeless kids, and this insight is reflected in Heaven Knows What's amazingly authentic vibe.

Holmes essentially plays herself and is fabulous in her acting debut. She's all fire and desire, a mess of a girl, careening from one obsession to the next. She lives to fix and fixate, her life a random journey fueled by desperate attachments and bad choices. Holmes may have the advantage of being very familiar with her character, but she's obviously a talented actress. Playing oneself can be difficult, and she's more than up to the task. Her performance is mature, subtle (some of her best moments have plenty of body language and no dialogue) and entirely believable.

Supporting Holmes is a cast of mostly non-actors, street kids who add another layer of naturalism to Heaven Knows What with their looks, lingo and hardened attitudes. They all do a fine job, but the standout is Duress as Mike, a fast-talking hustler full of bravado, but unexpectedly loyal and kind. Jones may be an experienced actor (among his many credits are X-Men: First Class and Friday Night Lights), but he so inhabits Ilya that he appears to be just another homeless teen.

Heaven Knows What isn't perfect: The pacing drags now and then, the mood could stand to lighten up a little, the soundtrack is sometimes intrusive and again, the love story is a cinematic cliché. But with terrific acting, a dead-on script that nails the vernacular of streetwise kids and a suitably gritty New York backdrop, Heaven Knows What is an uncommonly realistic take on New York's homeless teen subculture. It's worth watching for Holmes' performance alone.

Austin/Texas connections: Caleb Landry Jones was born in Garland.

Heaven Knows What screens again on Wednesday, March 18 at 1:30 pm at the Stateside Theater.