When the opening credits roll in “Heaven Knows What,” the main character, a New York City street junkie named Harley (Arielle Holmes), has already slit her wrists. Things get better for her after that, but not much.
Directed with cinema-verite rawness by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, “Heaven Knows What” is based on the real experiences of its lead actress, whom the directors found on the street. The story of making a movie with a homeless heroin addict as your star might be more compelling than the one in the film, which is basically the usual junkie tale of despair: Harley is poisonously in love with a fellow heroin user, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), and tries to stay away from him by hooking up with her semi-homeless dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress); self-destructive spirals ensue for all involved. But not only is Holmes’ performance unsurprisingly convincing in the details (her tone of voice when she panhandles, for example), it’s astonishingly good as a piece of careful, measured acting. The whole cast feels authentic, and the Safdies wisely avoid melodrama, keeping a grip on grimy reality that keeps a grip on us.
B (1 hr., 34 min.; )