The Safdie brothers are willing to look at hard truths, creating a movie that retains the immediacy and the tragedy of addiction.
By Tim Jackson
Brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie have been making short and rambling realistic films since they were students at Boston University. They graduated in 2007 & 2008. In their hometown of New York City they made short films that led to the creation of a sketchbook that became the basis for a meandering documentary shooting style. They focused on quirky, non-conformist characters who prowl the edges of the urban jungle. Their latest film, Heaven Knows What, is the culmination of this technique as well as their passion for the offbeat. It was written in collaboration with Ronald Bronstein, who in their previous feature Go Get Some Rosemary (which first went by the much better title Daddy Longlegs) was cast as a version of the Safdie’s real father, a struggling actor. It was not a very flattering portrait, but there was an endearing tenderness in its honesty. The sensitive direction of first-time child actors Frey and Sage Ranaldo, playing a fictionalized version the Safdie brothers, resulted in two marvelous performances.
The artistic stakes are higher in their new film. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Warhol/Morrissey’s Trash, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Larry Clark’s Kids, and the 1971 heroin drama, Panic in Needle Park, but Heaven Knows What zigzags about without excursions into cuteness or compromise — it is a more authentic document of street life than the other films. First time actress Arielle Holmes, a former heroin addict, enacts her own story as Harley. The Safdies discovered the 19-year-old manic-depressive addict and convinced her to write a narrative based on her life. They paid her by the page and used the reminiscences as the backbone for their movie. (The book, which will be published, is entitled Mad Love in New York City) The facts in this lower depths narrative are true. Holmes was an addict hopelessly in love with a junkie boyfriend named Ilya and, despondent when he left her, attempted suicide. Heroin consumed both their lives. They lived on the streets of Chinatown and the Upper West Side, begged for change, and shoplifted 5-Hour energy drinks for bootleg resale to buy drugs.
I didn’t know any of this background information going into the film, but the material helps the viewer understand the depth of the directors’ commitment to authenticity and their admirable desire to undercut any romantic notions about heroin addiction. As in their other films, there is affection and respect for less than sympathetic characters. Samuel Beckett-like scenarios of stupidity and misfortune border on the absurdly comical. These addicts and their enablers are all too human. The Safdies love New York and they depict a city filled with grungy charm, viewed through artfully crowded frames that make skillful use of long lenses that conflate perspectives and catch the chaos of the urban landscape. At times they move in close, focusing on the wasted and desperate faces of these vagabond kids with their gnarly teeth and stringy hair. Their protagonists have a love-hate relationship with the camera.
Mike, played by Buddy Duress, attempts in his own hapless way to fix things for Harley; Duress gives a performance without a hint of artificiality. In real life, the performer was a struggling ex-addict who was sentenced to Riker’s Island on drug offenses just hours after the filming finished. (Duress was released in February of this year.) Caleb Landry Jones (The Last Exorcism, Byzantium) plays Harley’s boyfriend Ilya, and he makes the character both repulsive and magnetic. He blends in seamlessly with the non-professionals. Jones calculatingly dirties up his pretty boy image with this remarkable and troubling portrayal. The real Ilya (last name Leontyev), on whom the figure is based, was well known in the NYC street scene. Charismatic and full of manic energy, he and Caleb-Jones became friends during the shooting. Ilya died of an apparent overdose in April at the age of 25.
As I walked out of the New York theater I spotted what I assumed to be a group of young addicts nodding in an alleyway. The instinctive — and probably the safest –thing to do is look away, walk a bit faster. In lower Manhattan these kids are everywhere. In the suburbs it is a growing problem. I admire the filmmakers’ empathy with lives we instinctively turn away from. Movies, after all, are not required to pretty things up or to entertain. The Safdie brothers are willing to look at hard truths, coming up with a film that retains the immediacy and the tragedy of addiction. They do not exploit their actors; they become their friends. They don’t judge and don’t play with race or class divisions. The film isn’t always easy to watch but is it depressing as it may sound. It asks that we look and understand that these street kids could be our sons and daughters — and they are not going away.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.