When filmmaker Josh Safdie approached 21-year-old Arielle Holmes on the streets of Manhattan while doing research on the Diamond District, he had no inkling of what he was about to delve into. Thinking she was a Russian “Diamond District Girl,” he thought she’d be perfect for a film he and his brother Ben had been trying to get off the ground called Rough Gems. After an enlightening lunch in Chinatown, Holmes slowly divulged her story. She lived on the streets of the Upper West Side and slept on the stairs of churches or in Central Park. She had washed her hair in a public bathroom and was only wearing the dress (her only one) that he had seen her in because she was apprenticing at a jewelry shop, which she landed when the owner saw her sketching on a street corner. She had a relentless addiction to heroin, but was trying to get clean. Her stories were chaotic and shocking, and Safdie was captivated. The two quickly formed a friendship and Safdie asked her to write down everything she told him—he paid her by the page.
After she had produced a few hundred pages, Safdie decided to translate it to film. The result is Heaven Knows What, a dark and dreary tale of a girl named Harley (Holmes), whose life on the streets revolves around her addiction, both to heroin and her abusive boyfriend Ilya (played brilliantly by Caleb Landry Jones). It seems that Harley can’t seem to catch any luck—we watch as she fights endlessly (and brutally) with Ilya. Always on the hunt for her next high, finding a place to sleep or something to eat is the last thing on her mind (but always a struggle). Harley’s only drawn towards what hurts her: The cunning, hateful Ilya and her captor heroin are the only things she lives for. The Safdie brothers have created the most candid, raw, genuine film about troubled youth and New York City since Larry Clark’s Kids. Filled with violence, conflict, and heartbreak, Holmes’ story isn’t an easy one to watch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful in its own tragic way.
Heaven Knows What opens in theaters today.