Heaven Knows What Review: The Unseen Lives of the Unseen

Photo Credit:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxWMc7iHt8Q

Heaven Knows What is a documentary style portrait of the people you avoid on public transportation. It’s unwaveringly real and relentlessly bleak. It’s not a drug movie with a flashy trip sequence to exercise a blossoming filmmaker’s technique. It’s just a young woman’s love affair with heroin and the man who introduced it to her.

We meet Harley (Arielle Holmes) as she’s trying to appeal to her zoned out ex-boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). She buys razors with money she collected on the street to slit her wrists and asks him if he’d like to watch. At first he denies her, telling her to stop talking about it and just do it. He later comes around and asks her to do it in front of him. She obliges and suddenly Ilya seems to care as he screams bloody murder for someone, anyone to call an ambulance. That’s when the title card shows up.

It sounds melodramatic for an opening scene, and it is, but heroin has dulled Harley and Ilya’s perceptions so much that it barely seems harsher than a typical lover’s quarrel. It’s a testament to Holmes and Jones that they barely seem like they’re acting.

The film doesn’t let up from there. Unlike say Requiem for a Dream, these characters don’t win the audience over with dreams and aspirations. We never learn what their family lives were like or who they hoped to become as adults. This is just the way they are, and for 90 minutes, we witness the endless cycle of their tragic lives.

The filmmakers trusts their audience to simply feel for the characters because they are human beings. That makes Heaven Knows What an incredibly brave film. There are no cheap writing tricks to make us root for them, but we do anyway. There’s just enough humanity breaking through their glossed over faces to rack up some emotional attachment.

But this thing is just far too bleak and depressing to manage to be more than anything it is. And that’s okay. What we got anyway is one of the most harrowing drug movies of the last decade. Despite its realness, the limitations of this horrific sub-genre are still in place. But the goal here was to give voices to people no one will listen to. That is where the film truly succeeds. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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