Based on the real-life story of ex-heroin addict Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What is a shock to the senses
Yes, I’ve seen Candy, Spun and Requiem for a Dream. But most films that audit junkie love – that romantic pilgrimage of needle sharing and occupying grimy squats – err on the side of selling ‘cool’, intentionally or not. They gloss right over the desperation of securing that next fix. Maybe that's not every junkie’s reality, but it’s surely one that rarely makes it to the big screen.
Instead we're served blowback kisses and late-night cuddles on a piss-stained mattress. That is, until the drug-addled couple hit rock bottom and seek help, quit cold turkey and live out the rest of their lives relapse free. It's the happy-ever-after of drug tale clichés.
Then there is the aesthetics of drug-use: the pure visual artistry of blood filling a syringe in Pulp Fiction; the blunt-smoking scene in Kids that portrays puff-puff-passing as the best waste of your time. “I do know that when I was young, whenever I’d see movies about drugs, even if they portrayed all the bad stuff that was associated with it, I would want to go and do them,” says Arielle Holmes, star of Heaven Knows What, a new film taking a raw look at junkie love. “I don’t think (drug use) is necessarily glamourised at all (in Heaven Knows What).”
Heaven Knows What is a difficult watch. Holmes, a formerly homeless heroin addict from New Jersey, plays out her own life story as Harley, a street urchin clamouring for a fix and vying for the attention and admiration of her apathetic druggie boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). The screenplay is based on Holmes’ unpublished memoir Mad Love In New York City.
Holmes was initially scouted asking strangers for change in New York’s Diamond District by director Josh Safdie and, once he dug deeper into her backstory and gained her trust, he started developing it for the film. “He seemed like he wasn’t there to judge or to put his two cents in about lifestyle choices. He seemed outside of that. I felt comfortable around him. I thought, if this guy is already interested in the half-story I’m giving him, I might as well tell him the whole truth. So I told him the truth.”
“Anybody I ever met that was a junkie, they always had this look of comfort to them. It seemed like they were always comfortable, and I wanted that so bad” – Arielle Holmes
As the lead actress in a future-cult film, Holmes has come a long way from panhandling and shooting up in New York's Upper West Side. So how did she end up on the streets in the first place? She moved out at 17 began selling drugs with her boyfriend, Ilya. Once they had saved enough money, they bought an apartment in Jersey City. After an unexpected fire left them homeless, Holmes turned to heroin. “Just being on the street, (heroin) was everywhere,” she says. “We just fell into it. Anybody I ever met that was a junkie, they always had this look of comfort to them. It seemed like they were always comfortable, and I wanted that so bad. I wanted to have that romantic adventure with it… and I did. That’s how we got into the situation.”
While it’s tough to swallow, the film is refreshing in its depiction of the tense relationship dynamics of a drug-abusing couple. Often, love takes a backseat to the drugs. Holmes is adamant that everyone will be able to relate in some way to her story. “My hopes are that people can learn something from it,” she says. “Whatever people get out of it, as long as they get something out of it, I’m happy with that.”
Naturally, her story has been fodder for the media who have turned her break-up with drugs into a rags-to-riches fable. Understandably, she’s not so keen on how it’s been portrayed: “That bothers the shit out of me. The way I see it, it’s just another part of life. That part of my life by society’s standards is a bad life, but I don’t think of it that way. I wanted to get out of it just because I wasn’t happy with myself at the time. There were things that I wanted to be doing that I couldn’t do because of (taking drugs). I definitely, personally feel like I’m in a better place, but when it comes to being an ‘inspiration’, I don’t think of it that way at all. I just think of it as a chapter of life.”
With her story now public property, Arielle Holmes is wisely choosing to own it. “I’m only 21 but I’ve been raised by a drug dealer, I’ve been a homeless junkie, and now I’m an actress. There’s going to be so much more that I move through in life as well.”
Heaven Knows What is out in US cinemas today