New York's drug subculture has occupied its share of screen time over the years, from "Midnight Cowboy" to "The Basketball Diaries," but few of those portrayals are as brutally raw as "Heaven Knows What," directed by the sibling team of Josh and Benny Safdie.
Of course, when going for gritty realism, it doesn't hurt to have your lead actress essentially playing herself. The Safdies commissioned nonprofessional Arielle Holmes to write about her life, and the resulting "Mad Love in New York City" formed the basis of the cinema verité script.
The film kicks off with Holmes' character Harley's suicide attempt after her emotionally abusive boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), dares her to show that she cares for him by slashing her wrists. "Heaven Knows What" then hangs with Harley and her junkie friends as they bide time between fixes.
The filmmakers immerse themselves in the milieu, heightening the heroin-addled ambience with a swirling, trance-heavy score. Despite the undeniable novelty of having Holmes on hand to keep it real, the absence of traditional character development ultimately takes its toll on viewer empathy.
With "Heaven Knows What," there's a marked difference between living it and loving it.
"Heaven Knows What"
MPAA rating: R for drug use, language, disturbing and violent images, sexuality, graphic nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood.