Harley is deeply in love with Ilya, despite his tumultuous personality. The only thing she loves more is heroin. When Ilya asks Harley to kill herself to prove her love she agrees without much hesitation, her mind muddled by the drug.
When I first saw the trailer for Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, it looked like an update of Christiane F., another movie based on a true story about a young girl in the death grip of smack. I’ve come to take such proclamations of truth in regards to film with a mountain-sized grain of salt. Nanook of the North was marketed as a documentary, but it’s fiction. The airport finale in Argo never happened. In Lee Daniel’s The Butler, the titular butler’s family life is made up and his name was changed, inexplicably. Nevertheless, I was curious to learn just how much of Heaven Knows What was true.
The answer is almost all of it happened to Arielle Holmes—who stars as Harley, a version of herself, in the film—and the story of her discovery is almost worthy of its own movie. Josh Safdie met her while he was researching another film in the Diamond District of New York City. He learned that Holmes spent her days as a jeweler’s apprentice. She’d then head to a methadone clinic in Chinatown before spending her nights working as a dominatrix. Holmes talked about her life on the streets, about being homeless and about Ilya and the dark love that she described as epic.
Safdie was completely fascinated with Holmes, but he stopped hearing from her two months after their initial meeting. He wasn’t that surprised, what with all the wild bedlam that seemed to swirl around her. Two weeks later, however, he received a call from a pay phone. It was Holmes. She’d just gotten out of Bellevue Hospital after an attempted suicide—the same one that starts the film.
Both concerned for her well-being and taken with the narrative of her life, Safdie offered to pay Holmes for her story. Typing on computers in Apple stores she produced a document over 150 pages. It became her soon-to-be-published memoir Mad Love in New York City as well as the basis for Heaven Knows What.
Movies about heroin are difficult for me to watch, from the few scenes in Little Miss Sunshine to the arm-rotting scenes in Requiem for a Dream. They’re also riveting in a train wreck sort of way. There’s no glamour in this lifestyle, and the Brothers Safdie have given us a film that presents it as a gritty, dismal scene—a scene that’s not exclusive to New York City: heroin is everywhere, including our fair city and region.
Heaven Knows What is not an easy film to watch, and none of the characters are exactly likable, but knowing that it’s an approximation of real life completely transforms it for me. There’s real pain behind Holmes’ eyes and her raw performance elevates the film from faux-documentary fiction to a hardstyle-scored cautionary tale, tragically cyclic though it may be. Hers is a story that will stay with you long after the final frame.
Despite all the misfortune and heartbreak that swarms around her, Holmes’ life is still a story of redemption in the making. She’s now an actress living in Los Angeles and can next be seen alongside Shia LaBeouf in the upcoming American Honey.
Not too bad for a formerly homeless drug addict.