Someone already used the title “Love and Other Drugs,” otherwise it would have been an apt title for Heaven Knows What, the newest collaboration between directing brothers Josh and Ben Safdie. The film is based on the book by Arielle Holmes about the past three years of her life, capturing in gruesome detail the last year of her living on the streets of New York as a drug addict. But it’s far from Trainspotting—a film that fetishizes drug addicts and their crazy lives—both in content and creation. The movie, which premiered at Venice Film Festival last month, leaves a pit in your stomach as you watch the endless cycle of addiction unfold in a sickening repetitious cycle. In fact, the story is really about two addictions: love and drugs.
Arielle was stuck on both: her addict, emotionally abusive boyfriend, Ilya (played by a Caleb Landry Jones), and heroin. “I’d wanted to get clean for a while,” the slightly nervous new actress tells us. “And recently because of the opportunities I’ve had, it’s been more important for me to stay clean.”
Arielle was living on the streets, but maintaining two jobs—one as a dominatrix and the other as an apprentice in the diamond district for a jewelry maker, since she wanted to learn the trade. On her way to the subway one day, Josh and Sebastian Bear-McClard (producer) were street casting for a different project. Josh and Arielle exchanged information and began meeting about once a week. Eventually, Arielle began to feel Josh out (who didn’t know a heroin addict living on the street), and figured he’d be interested in her life enough to collaborate with her.
“I’ve always written poetry and short stories,” she says, explaining how the brothers eventually asked her to write down her experiences. “I’ve written essays on my theories of life and philosophies. But even though I kept journals, I never wrote down in such detail my experiences. I started doing that to help develop ideas and direction for this movie.”
Ben Safdie claims it was the writing that really convinced them to make this film. “Once Josh asked Arielle to write her stories down,” he says, “you could see that it was not just a normal perspective on a story that’s been told many times before, both in documentary and narrative films.”
This was a conversation that happened often between the brothers and their producing team—how exactly do we want to portray drug addicts? “It’s something so other and so exotic and when it feels like that the audience can become in awe of it,” adds Ben Safdie. “The last thing we want is someone to walk out of the theater saying they want to try heroin.”
So they opted to keep it real. And real it was. Really awful, really disheartening, really loud and disturbing.
“The closest films to this conceptually are pretty obscure,” explains Josh. “Dusty & Sweets McGee (1971), Christiane F. (1981), and Streetwise (1984). Dope is such a big deal again in America because there’s no social conscious about it anymore. I’m not saying our movie is a social tract, there’s no ‘Here’s your brain on drugs’ campaign. Drugs are a prison. They get into your system and you have to do them. The movie is a prison, one which Arielle is constantly trying to break out of, and love is the only thing she thinks can do that. Unfortunately, love is just as self-destructive.”
Adds Arielle: “Watching the film gives me a lot of insight and perspective into my life. I didn’t realize how stuck I was. You don’t realize that when you’re there. You might feel it, but every day blends into the next. A lot of people in that life, myself included, are talented and intelligent. They’re very creative. They’re musicians or artists or writers. We have all these inspirations and want to do things with them, but nothing ever gets done because you’re stuck in the cycle.”