It used to be that films about NY tweens getting high and fucking each other were all too predictable, a paint-by-numbers indie movie. In those days it was a romantic ideal – scattered souls, moving against the flow of conformity and savings-accounts living for hedonistic pursuits, like a mangy Tropic of Cancer. Eventually Cannes and the rest of the festival circuit moved inexorably onwards in pursuit of the contemporary. But those addicts remained in the streets and parks of NYC, now not only destitute, but culturally unfashionable.
Arielle Holmes was a homeless user when she encountered Josh Safdie. Before Josh’s and his brother’s sleeper hit Good Time or their breakout Uncut Gems, they were fresh from a couple of flops and a reasonably successful sports documentary. In the course of casting what would become Uncut Gems in the Diamond District of Manhattan, they met Holmes soliciting change. They got talking, and they saw potential in her adroit way of describing her experience. The decision to not only adapt her life but also cast her is a brave move, and somehow ends up avoiding exploitation.
The most direct comparison for Heaven Knows What is the Harmony Korine movie Kids, the most well-known of this archetype of subject. It’s undeniable that Heaven is a continuation of something that Kids started – the aromantic treatment of New York as a setting, a voyeuristic sense of glimpsing into fringe experience. However, Kids faced issues of glorifying the kind of momentary satisfactions that the addict lifestyle could offer, whereas Heaven Knows What feels like a spoonful of reality caramelised on a skillet. Kids draped itself in a trendy cultural subversiveness and had a fashionable cast of ne’er-do-wells, Heaven Knows What is anything but trendy, and its cast is dishrag ratty. Holmes is the eye-of-the-storm, implacable in some scenes and then gurning and twisted in others, she’s a weathervane for the downward momentum and a superb player. […]